BEREA — The trampoline turned out to be a trapdoor.
The Browns were expected to take off after they dominated the Ravens in a 40-25 win Sept. 29 in Baltimore. They were 2-2, tied with the Ravens and in first place in the AFC North for the first time since November 2014.
The long-awaited changing of the guard in the division had arrived.
Only it hadn’t.
The outcome in Baltimore was undeniably a defining moment in the seasons of the Browns and Ravens. Just not the way everyone in Cleveland had hoped.
The Browns (6-8) plummeted to four straight defeats after the trip to Baltimore, ruining their playoff chances and putting first-year coach Freddie Kitchens’ job in jeopardy.
“We had a lot of success right there and tried to build off that, but the inconsistency of everybody not doing their job every play is clearly the reason for that,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said.
The Ravens (12-2) went the other way and enter the rematch Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium on a franchise-record 10-game winning streak. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is a huge favorite to be the NFL MVP in his second season, and the Ravens have clinched their second straight division title and are the top choice to win the Super Bowl.
“It’s like, we’ve got to tighten up,” Jackson said of the Ravens’ reaction to the loss. “We know what we’ve got. We’ve just got to play ball. We can’t go out there and not play to our full potential. So we talked to each other.”
The Browns scored 30 points in the second half, Nick Chubb rushed for 165 yards and three touchdowns, Jarvis Landry had eight catches for 167 yards and the defense forced three turnovers as they looked like the team that was the talk of the NFL during the offseason.
They left all the momentum on the tarmac in Baltimore.
The Browns were waxed 31-3 the following Monday night in San Francisco and didn’t win again until Nov. 10 against Buffalo. They haven’t won on the road since Baltimore.
The season’s been wrecked by an inefficient offense, a disappointing defense and nonstop drama.
“It was one of those things where excited for the moment, obviously it hasn’t gone the way we wanted,” left guard Joel Bitonio said. “So it’s one of those things that obviously you want to go back and be like, can we go to that point and restart and see where we can go from there? But I still think that win was a huge win in the sense that we can play with anybody in this league.”
That knowledge is infuriating and empowering. The Browns have provided only glimpses of the potential they haven’t fulfilled.
“If we play together, we play great complementary football and we execute, we are a very good football team,” coach Freddie Kitchens said. “When we do not, we are just like anybody else.
“Frustration grows sometimes from the standpoint of you know what you could be but you are not there due to lack of execution or due to whatever.”
Mayfield bristled when asked if the victory over Baltimore was a fluke, given that the Browns haven’t been able to duplicate the performance.
“I would not say it is a fluke whatsoever — that is not very kind of you,” he said. “We have shown flashes where we could be great, but we were consistent that game. It is just about being consistent, and we have not been as consistent as of recently.”
Center JC Tretter warned reporters right after the Week 4 win that it would only be a springboard if the Browns continued to play well.
“It kind of shows you what the NFL is like in that one game doesn’t really mean anything or carry anything,” he said. “Going out there and executing every week is how you win. Momentum is a nice word and all, but it’s really about execution.”
Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said the Browns didn’t let down, they just stopped playing well.
“I don’t think we relaxed, we just, as far as coaches and players not executing and then sometimes we get cute in our play calling,” he said.
The Ravens regrouped after the loss, traded for Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters as they remade the defense and continued to find ways to get the most out of Jackson. The Ravens had a record-tying 12 players selected to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday — the Browns had two — and can clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a victory Sunday.
“That was our last loss and it wasn’t good,” running back Mark Ingram said. “We’re not that team anymore. We’re a better team. We kind of grew a lot from that moment.
“We were 2-2 and pretty much said our season could go one of two ways. We can change it and have success, or we can fold and fail. We came together, went back to the drawing board and we kept grinding one day at a time and here we are, 10 wins later.”
The Ravens lead the league with 58 touchdowns and 33.7 points a game, but the offense had begun the year with 59 points against Miami. The defense has reached a new level during the winning streak, allowing only 15 touchdowns and an NFL-low 15.7 points.
“We compete our butts off with one another to make each other better, because we know we have a great offense and a great defense,” Jackson said. “So when we face anyone outside of the building, we know it’s game over. We know what we can do, so we’ve just been having success at all attributes. So we’re just going to keep it going.”
The Browns could only watch as the Ravens ran away with the North.
“They’ve had a helluva year, all the power to them. Obviously we’re not in that position, we would love to be, we still believe in what we have here,” Tretter said. “But to get to that point you have to earn it. We haven’t earned that right, we haven’t earned that record, we haven’t earned that position yet.”