CLEVELAND — Baker Mayfield took the shotgun snap, sprinted right, followed the blocks of running back Kareem Hunt, right tackle Jack Conklin and tight end Austin Hooper and gained 3 yards on fourth-and-2 with 1:10 left and the Steelers out of timeouts.
The quarterback keeper sealed the 24-22 win Sunday and secured the Browns’ first playoff berth in 18 years.
The celebration was worthy of the postseason.
Mayfield popped up and gave an exaggerated first-down signal. Then he spun the ball with gusto.
After a brief break to take a knee in the victory formation, the party started again. He thrust his right index finger into the air with the ball cradled under his left arm, then used both arms to encourage the boisterous crowd of 12,000 at FirstEnergy Stadium to get even louder.
“That was special getting Baker to seal the deal there,” said left guard Joel Bitonio, who made the playoffs for the first time in his seventh season. “He is the quarterback of this team and the leader. To have the ball is in his hand to finish the game, that was impressive.”
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) January 3, 2021
Before then-general manager John Dorsey decided to draft Mayfield with the No. 1 pick in 2018, Mayfield told a crowd of reporters at the scouting combine he was the guy who could transform the Browns from 0-16 laughingstock. Not even three years later, he’s helped the organization accomplish Step 1.
It’s a giant one.
“First, I would say I have had a ton of help along the way,” he said. “All it takes is you have to weather the storm. You have to be able to take those punches. I have a good buddy — he is the same one I brought up before that played at St Ed’s and I won’t cuss — but he says you have to eat your ‘crap burger.’ You can insert the other word for it. You have to eat your ‘crap burger’ before you have a real good burger.
“A lot of people here have weathered the storm and rolled with those punches, and you are seeing the benefits of just staying tough and doing that, facing adversity head on and saying we are tired of it and let’s go onto the next one.”
Mayfield picking up the decisive first down on a designed run was fitting. He went 17-for-27 passing for 196 yards, a 2-yard touchdown to Hooper and a 97.1 passer rating but made the greatest impact on six runs for 44 yards, including a 28-yarder that set up the TD pass.
Mayfield is the first to admit he doesn’t run like Lamar Jackson or Deshaun Watson but he can make a defense pay for losing track of him.
“I think he had three big first downs,” receiver Jarvis Landry said. “That is part of the greatness that he has in him.”
The Steelers called their last timeout before the final run. Backup quarterback Case Keenum told Mayfield the play call.
“I thought he was joking at first because I did not hear it well,” he said. “We called it, and I said, ‘Let’s go do it.’ It was a great call. All of our guys made great blocks, but Kareem right in front of me, I could hear that collision. He smacked that guy in front of me. He gave me enough room to get the first down.”
A week earlier the Browns had their first chance to lock up a playoff spot but lost to the lowly Jets. Mayfield fumbled three times, including on a fourth-down sneak in the final two minutes.
Coach Kevin Stefanski didn’t hesitate to go back to him, adding the final play during the week after line coach Bill Callahan designed it.
“He wants the rock in his hand,” said Stefanski, who calls the plays. “That is the type of person he is in these moments.”
Mayfield blamed himself for the loss to the Jets and was motivated to make the most of the second chance to reach the playoffs.
“He wanted this one, I can promise you that,” Stefanski said. “He was already on to this game on that airplane. Just in talking to him, I could see that determination. He works very, very hard at his craft, which I appreciate.”
Mayfield wasn’t perfect Sunday. After the Steelers cut the lead to 24-16, the Browns had third-and-3 from the Pittsburgh 31-yard line with 4:25 left. Mayfield took a sack that moved the Browns out of field goal range, then threw too low to receiver Rashard Higgins on fourth-and-7.
The Steelers scored on a 2-yard pass from Mason Rudolph to receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster with 1:23 left but couldn’t convert the 2-point conversion to tie the game.
“There was no flinching or no panic on our sideline,” Mayfield said.
There was self-disgust.
“There are a lot of things I kick myself after,” Mayfield said. “My fourth-down throw straight into the dirt with Higgy. There are a lot of things that we obviously did not play our best game. There is no doubt about that.
“We are in the playoffs and we get to learn from this film, play the same opponent, go correct these mistakes and see what happens.”
Mayfield joined the Colts’ Peyton Manning (1998-00) and Andrew Luck (2012-14) as the only players in NFL history with 3,500 passing yards and 20 touchdown passes in each of their first three seasons. His 95.9 passer rating for the season ranks third in Browns history behind Otto Graham in 1953 (99.7) and Milt Plum in 1960 (110.4). He’s the first Browns quarterback to start every game in two straight seasons since Brian Sipe from 1978-81.
Mayfield kept the ball after the celebration.
“I’m not going to let it go,” he said in his on-field interview with CBS.