After winning three out of 39 under their previous coach, the Browns have now won three out of four, and the usual slog though another dismal December looks like it will be avoided in this, the year of their long-awaited pivot from punch line to puncher.
Sunday, in a 26-20 win on flag day at FirstEnergy Stadium, Baker Mayfield showed again why he’s the real deal, the Browns showed plenty of bounce-back resiliency from their Texas calamity from a week ago, and the flag-fest orchestrated by referee Walt Anderson’s officiating crew threw another giant log on the worst-officiated-season-in-NFL-history bonfire.
It was a game that had everything, some of it even useful, starting with another coldly efficient performance by the rookie quarterback. Mayfield completed all but four of his 22 pass attempts for 238 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
In five starts under the previous head coach, Mayfield completed 56.5 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and six interceptions and was sacked 19 times. He had one game with a quarterback rating over 100.
In five starts under the current interim coach, Mayfield has completed 73.2 percent of his passes, throwing 11 touchdowns and four interceptions, while being sacked three times and having a quarterback rating over 100 in three of his last four games.
Sunday was a litmus test for Mayfield, who had a dreadful first half in the loss in Houston the previous week, when he threw three interceptions. But his combined stats in the second half against Houston and the first half against Carolina were rather jaw-dropping: 32-for-40 (80 percent) for 527 years and two touchdowns.
“There are not many things that confuse him or surprise him,” said interim coach Gregg Williams. “He does a really good job of only having one mistake, and not repeating a mistake.”
After having the worst two quarters of his professional career, Mayfield responded with six brilliant quarters. He wasted no time in turning the page Sunday, firing a 66-yard beauty to Breshad Perriman on the Browns’ first play from scrimmage. That was the first play of a three-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that the Browns executed in a snappy 96 seconds.
You know, just to set a tone.
“Obviously, last week was not my best performance,” Mayfield said. “We talked about that. It was all the little things. We did a lot better than we did last week, and that’s the important part.”
Sunday was also a good test for the Browns as a whole. They got beat in Houston the week before, and in the first half especially they looked completely overmatched. But they stopped the bleeding in the second half, and made a statement Sunday with a rousing bounce-back victory, which ended when Damarious Randall intercepted a Cam Newton pass on the first play of what the Panthers hoped would be a game-winning drive.
Instead, it was a game-ending interception.
It was also a much-needed turnover created by the Browns defense, which struggled in the first half, especially with their tackling. That’s rather important because, well, you know, this is tackle football.
“Tackle. It comes down to that,” said Williams. “At halftime, I can’t repeat all of the words I said, but it was just about tackling.”
In the second half the Browns tackled, and Mayfield kept gunslinging, much like he did in the second quarter, when Jarvis Landry made a spectacular in-traffic touchdown catch of a precisely thrown ball from Mayfield, whose freakish accuracy continues to rear its adorable head.
“The middle opened up, Baker got out of the pocket. I just kind of kept running, and he made a hell of a throw,” Landry said.
So did this week’s officiating crew. Flag-throwing, that is. Parts of the third quarter were almost unwatchable as penalty flags fluttered to the ground seemingly on every play. Some were legitimate penalties, but the sheer volume of them raised eyebrows, and stopped the game in its tracks.
“It was called, and we’ll just go from there,” said Carolina coach Ron Rivera, when asked about the combined 17 penalties for 120 yards. And that was after one penalty actually took a potentially critical point away from the Browns.
After a touchdown run by Nick Chubb, giving the Browns a 23-20 lead, Greg Joseph kicked the extra point. But the Panthers were called for offside before the snap, so the penalty took precedence. The ball was moved 5 yards closer, but this time Joseph missed the kick.
Instead of leading by four the Browns led by only three, and, after a later field goal, instead of leading by seven they only led by six, which meant Carolina’s last drive could have potentially won it.
But the sore-armed Newton air-mailed a throw on the first play of the possession. Randall caught it, and 57 seconds later the Browns became what they are:
The best 5-7-1 team in the NFL.