Baker Mayfield and the offense have believed since Freddie Kitchens took over as play caller a month ago.
An upset of the Texans on Sunday would make believers out of people across the league.
The Browns have gone 2-1 to spark playoff talk, using a diverse, imaginative and fundamentally sound offensive scheme directed by Kitchens. On the way to 28 points and 296 yards in the first half last week in the dominating win over the Bengals, Kitchens showed his versatility and the expansiveness of the playbook he inherited from Todd Haley, who was fired Oct. 29 along with coach Hue Jackson.
On the opening drive he used personnel packages with two, three and four receivers and had one play with three running backs. On the second drive Kitchens went four straight snaps with five receivers and an empty backfield. On the next possession he deployed multiple tight ends and a fullback. All resulted in touchdowns.
“It’s definitely been a mixed package,” receiver Jarvis Landry said. “The biggest thing with Coach Freddie and him calling plays is he’s putting the best guys out there in the best situations that he can possibly come up with and we go out there and make plays.”
The offense will face by far its toughest test since Kitchens took over. The Chiefs, Falcons and Bengals defenses were ranked 31st, 28th and 32nd. The Houston defense is loaded with stars and has the numbers to match.
It ranks fifth in scoring (20.2 points), eighth overall (330.6 yards), seventh against the rush (96.8) and eighth against the pass (236.8). It’s been even better during the Texans’ eight-game win streak that started with a pair of overtime victories and followed three losses to open the year — 18.5 points, 327.4 yards and 15 takeaways.
“Any time you get to play against a top-10 defense like this, you want to rise to the occasion, you want to be able to execute,” Mayfield said. “Like I’ve said the past couple weeks, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we have to do our job. But obviously this week we’re playing better competition, so doing our job is even that much more important.”
Mayfield and the offense have their own set of shiny stats under Kitchens.
Mayfield has completed 73.9 percent for 771 yards, nine touchdowns, an interception and a 129.5 passer rating. The balanced offense has averaged 28 points and 386 yards.
The improvement goes beyond scheme and script. Kitchens made it a priority to ask the players which calls they’re comfortable with and incorporate them. The confidence level and trust factor rose across the unit.
“He has faith in us, we have faith in him, so it goes both ways,” running back Duke Johnson said. “The biggest difference is Freddie cares about what we want. He’s going to come to us and ask us things we see and things that we believe we can do and work.”
Mayfield already had plenty of reason to be in Kitchens’ corner, as he became the first rookie in NFL history with consecutive games of a 140-plus passer rating.
“He is a very accurate passer, a very smart player, understands coverage and where to go with the ball,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “Obviously, he does a great job of extending plays. Throws on the run really well. Freddie Kitchens is doing a great job with him. I know Freddie. Freddie is a really good football coach. He has really made a big difference for him. Baker is really playing at a high level.”
Kitchens further endeared himself to Mayfield and the roster with a passionate speech Thursday supporting Mayfield in the wake of criticism for his treatment and comments toward Jackson.
“I am standing behind Baker Mayfield,” Kitchens said. “I do not care about anyone who does not work in this building and what they think about what he said. I stand behind him and the players in this locker room.”
The Browns (4-6-1) need to be united as they try to do the seemingly impossible by finishing the regular season with seven straight wins to make the playoffs. They’ve won two in a row for the first time since 2014 and headed to Texas bursting with confidence.
“This is part of continuing that trend upwards,” defensive end Myles Garrett said. “I think we can do it. I think we have the defense and the offense to get after them and get after them early and often. But talk is cheap.
“If we want to have any kind of postseason dreams, we have to keep this little streak going. So they’re in the way right now.”
The playoff conversation would be silenced with a loss to the Texans. They have offensive playmakers in quarterback Deshaun Watson, receiver DeAndre Hopkins and running back Lamar Miller, but the defense more than holds its own with end J.J. Watt, outside linebackers Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus and safety Tyrann Mathieu.
The power is in the front seven. The Texans are tied for sixth with 34 sacks, led by Watt with 11.5 and Clowney with seven.
Watt is in his own universe as a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Since entering the league in 2011, he leads with 238 quarterback hits, 149 tackles for loss and is second with 87.5 sacks.
“Going against him is going to be fun,” right tackle Chris Hubbard said. “I’m up for the challenge and I can’t wait.”
Houston had six sacks Monday night in a win over the Titans, giving them five or more in back-to-back games for the first time. The Browns counter by having allowed two sacks in the three games under Kitchens, including two shutouts in a row. The Browns hadn’t gone two straight games without a sack since 2007, and it’s been 30 years since three in a row.
The Browns aren’t running scared. Not with Mayfield, Kitchens and the newfound belief.
Interim coach Gregg Williams said the players were “rocking and rolling” at practice.
“Hopefully, we are building in the right way,” he said. “This week, we have had no problems getting our players’ attention on how good (the Texans) are. They see the film, too. They are playing very well.
“We have to take it up a notch. We have to play and perform and produce in the right way.”
Offensive lineman Kyle Kalis (6-foot-4, 306 pounds) was promoted to the active roster from the practice squad Saturday. Receiver Da’Mari Scott was waived.
Kalis, a St. Edward High School graduate, provides insurance in the interior. Starting center JC Tretter is expected to play but is fighting through a high ankle sprain, and backup Austin Corbett was ruled out with a foot injury.