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Browns 21, Bengals 16: Cleveland ends disappointing season with win, some positives, finishes 8-9

CLEVELAND — The finality of one of the most disappointing seasons in Browns history was striking.

FirstEnergy Stadium was half-full Sunday on a gray, windy day. Starting quarterback Baker Mayfield watched from the sideline as he awaits surgery Jan. 19. The AFC North champion Bengals rested most of their key players in preparation for hosting a playoff game next weekend.

The Browns won and were done. The celebration of a 21-16 win over Cincinnati muted by unrealized expectations and giving way to an offseason of regret.

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But they walked into the long winter with their heads held high.

“The guys fought like crazy, played hard and came away with a win, which is what we set out to do, so obviously that feeling in the locker room is what this is about,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “I thought the guys really fought for each other and did a nice job with that.”

Case Keenum replaced Mayfield and threw two touchdown passes to go with two turnovers, and D’Ernest Johnson rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown. The Browns were lucky to recover an onside kick in the final minutes to hold off a rally by Cincinnati’s second- and third-stringers.

The Browns snapped a three-game losing streak to finish the season 8-9 in the league’s first 17-game regular season. The Browns went 11-5 last season to snap a 17-year playoff drought, then beat the Steelers in the wild card round before losing to the Chiefs in the divisional round.

The 2021 season started with great hope and excitement, but the Browns were sunk by inconsistency, a below-average passing attack and key absences due to injuries and COVID-19. They won consecutive games only once — three straight in Weeks 2-4.

They went 3-3 in the AFC North, including a sweep of the Bengals (10-7), and finished in third place. The Steelers went 9-7-1 and the Ravens 8-9. Cleveland took third because of a better division record.

The Browns have the No. 13 pick in the NFL Draft.

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Mayfield was placed on injured reserve Wednesday as he prepares for surgery to repair the torn labrum in his left, non-throwing shoulder. He looked on Sunday following a positive exit interview with Stefanski on Friday after tensions and frustrations grew during the season. The Browns enter the offseason with Mayfield expected to be the starter again in 2022.

“Oh, yeah,” Stefanski said when asked if Mayfield left the meeting on a good note. “Yes, he is looking forward and I am looking forward for him to get the surgery, rest up, get healthy and all of those things.”

The bright spots Sunday started with the effort. The Browns had been eliminated from playoff contention a week earlier, yet Stefanski played his healthy starters in the quest for a closing victory and they played hard.

The Browns also celebrated several strong individual efforts.

Notes: D’Ernest Johnson comes off COVID list, rushes for 123 yards and TD

Keenum went 17-for-24 for 176 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a 102.1 passer rating. He lost a fumble that was returned 29 yards for a touchdown by safety Trayvon Henderson.

Keenum improved to 2-0 as the starter this year. He beat the Broncos 17-14 on Oct. 21, the lone game Mayfield missed with the shoulder injury.

The Keenum-Johnson duo proved formidable once again. The two 100-yard games in Johnson’s career came this season in Keenum’s starts.

“I will ride with this guy any day,” Keenum said of Johnson, who’s scheduled to become a restricted free agent in March. “He sat at home all week (on the COVID-19 list), showed up today for work and brought it. It was impressive to watch. I couldn’t be more proud and just so happy for this dude. He works his tail off, and he deserves everything that is coming to him.”

Starting running back Nick Chubb played just enough — nine carries for 58 yards, 6.4 average — to finish with 1,259 rushing yards, good for second place in the NFL behind Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor (1,811). Chubb also finished second in 2019, with 1,494.

Receiver Jarvis Landry completed a difficult season with a strong game that could be his last with the Browns. He got the Browns on the scoreboard with a 26-yard touchdown catch with 56 seconds left in the first quarter and caught six passes for 75 yards.

Landry had a down year by his standards, missing five games — four with a sprained knee and one with COVID-19 — and catching 52 passes for 570 yards and two touchdowns. He’s due $15 million in 2022 in the final year of his contract, so the Browns have a decision to make.

Keenum said this is how Stefanski’s offense is supposed to look, with a good balance of run and play-action passes. The Browns averaged 15.6 points over the final eight games.

“When it is rolling, it is rolling,” Keenum said. “You have to give other teams a lot of credit who prepare against us and look for tendencies. It is hard. It is a tough league.

“It was a little taste of it.”

The defense dominated much of the day, holding the Bengals to 11 first downs and 182 yards. Ends Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Garrett led the way.

Clowney continued his strong finish with two sacks, raising his total to nine, including four in the last two games, and boosting his bank account. He had a $500,000 incentive in his contract for seven sacks, which jumped to $750,000 for nine, according to

Jadeveon Clowney adds pair of sacks to finish with 9, walks into offseason, potential free agency feeling great

Garrett added a sack, taking his franchise-record season total to 16. He had gone three games without one as he played through a groin injury.

Rookie Demetric Felton scored the final Cleveland points of the season with a 10-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter. Keenum threw quickly toward the sideline, and Felton had blockers in front.

Keenum enjoyed the win but knew reality would set in soon enough.

“I have been around long enough to know that you enjoy the heck out of every win,” he said. “In the next few weeks when we are sitting at home and watching the playoff games, that is probably when it will hit a little bit more for me, knowing some of the opportunities that we passed up. It is tough. You learn, you grow and you move on.

“We have a lot of really good pieces to build on and a lot of guys who are really hungry and have been left with that taste in their mouth of not getting where we want to be. I think that will motivate guys for offseason workouts, for OTAs or whatever is coming this offseason to be ready to take full advantage of it next year.”


Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.


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