The Browns are feeling good about themselves.
They saw the offense finally click in a 40-25 win over the Ravens last week that moved them into first place in the AFC North. (The Ravens moved a half-game in front Sunday with an overtime win over the Steelers.)
They’re adding key pieces with the expected return of receivers Antonio Callaway (drug suspension) and Rashard Higgins (knee) and strong safety Morgan Burnett (quadriceps) for the matchup against the San Francisco 49ers on “Monday Night Football.”
The defense believes it’s starting to establish itself as the strength of the team, despite all the attention paid to the offense.
The unnerving 1-2 start seems like ancient history.
“This is a different Browns team,” receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said Friday. “We came over here, we talked about winning.
“We didn’t have the best start. But we have a lot of momentum going into this game and I think we’ll continue to carry that throughout the season. It’s all about winning right now, period. Win ’em however we can, get on to the next one.”
Coming off eight catches and a career-high 167 yards in three quarters, and clearing concussion protocol within a week, receiver Jarvis Landry is on the same page as best friend Beckham.
“I sense and feel a momentum,” he said. “We talked about leadership and about the guys that step up, the things that everybody doesn’t see. That’s continued to grow and the relationship building that we’ve got going on in here is amazing.
“A lot of times, everybody will tell you, it starts in the locker room. Not the coaches or the plays, it starts in the locker room. These guys, we hold each other to a high standard and we hold each other accountable. I see that. I saw that happening. I think we’re on the right track.”
The road from 0-16 to the playoffs is one of a hundred steps. Beating the Ravens on the road was the latest. Next on the agenda is stringing wins.
It won’t be easy against the 49ers, who are 3-0, coming off a bye and four-point favorites. The Browns are playing their third prime-time game in four weeks and had to cross the country.
“It is huge to stack wins in a row, especially two road wins in a row,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “I think for us to carry that into a short week coming back home would be huge.
“We are just taking it one week at a time, though. Building on the momentum. We set the standard and we need to continue to improve.”
The Browns have gone loss-win-loss-win to start the season, with both wins coming away from FirstEnergy Stadium for the first 2-0 road start since 1994. For Mayfield, that’s a sign of the team’s bond.
“We are all in it together,” he said. “We realized that when we traveled to Indy to practice against the Colts in camp how close this team was with each other and what we will do for each other.”
The 2-2 start isn’t ideal but will work. The team is too new, too young and led by a first-time coach, so there are going to be bumps in the road.
The first was the offensive problems that led to the 1-2 start. That the Browns got past it showed their resilience, confidence and ability to handle the adversity of injuries, struggles and criticism.
They also believe they found an offensive identity against the Ravens, combining the dominant running of Nick Chubb with the efficient passing of Mayfield.
“I think that was a blueprint,” left guard Joel Bitonio said. “We ran the ball early, it wasn’t as successful, but we wore ’em down a little bit and finally we broke some big runs in the second half.
“Some shots down the field, big plays. Just mix it up and keeping the defense guessing. There was motions, there was movement, there was different looks, different routes out of the same looks.”
“That’s what we’ve been building up for and it’s what we’ve been trying to do,” Landry said. “We’ve been trying to continue to get our playmakers the ball and get in space. We’re just getting more comfortable with the plays that we’re running and that we’re executing. That’s it.”
Bitonio knows one game isn’t enough to establish an identity.
“We’ve got to improve on that,” he said. “We don’t want it to just be, ‘Oh, that was a fluke game, they played really well for one game on offense.’ We want to try and do that again against San Fran.”
The 49ers won’t make it easy to repeat the success had against the Ravens. They have the third-ranked defense, led by a tall and talented line.
Missing starting cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (foot) hurts, but the Niners have collected five interceptions and nine sacks in three games, lead the league with a 72.7 passer rating against and are tied for second with a 57.1 completion percentage allowed.
Mayfield has thrown six interceptions and completed 59 percent for a 77.2 rating.
“You are looking at five first-round draft picks up front,” coach Freddie Kitchens said of the 49ers. “They are playing with great passion and energy. They get to the ball. They play hard. I do not know what else you want in a football team. They are very good.”
The 49ers continue the meatgrinder portion of Cleveland’s schedule. They sit in the middle of Rams-Ravens-Niners-Seahawks-bye-Patriots, making it hard to stack the wins.
“That’s the goal. It’s always nice,” center JC Tretter said. “But we have a tough little run of games here. This is a really tough part of our schedule.”
The hope is the Browns are just getting started. If, in fact, the win over the Ravens serves as a springboard to greater success, the Browns will have seized the chance to create an identity.
“We have learned a lot about ourselves that moving forward, I think, will benefit us,” Kitchens said. “We just have to get better every week.
“You can form an identity and you can decide who you are and who you are not a lot of times the longer the season goes on. You begin to figure out who you are and who you are not, and sometimes it is better to figure out who you are not.”