We did it: I’m sure this was a sentiment (mostly) shared throughout the Cleveland Browns’ fan base. It was one I received via text after their dramatic 47-42 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Monday. But what exactly did Cleveland do? Sure, it was competitive until the final minute; and in a battle between a quarterback destined to be a hero, Lamar Jackson, and an ambitious antihero, Baker Mayfield, who is determined to bring Cleveland back to prominence, there was a small sense of accomplishment.
But Cleveland still lost. Mayfield, for as valiant as his effort was against the NFL’s reigning MVP, still lost. Cleveland, in fact, did not do it.
But can they?
“I do not want to go down the moral victories [path],” head coach Kevin Stefanski told NFL media after the game. “We lost. We got beat. [I’m] proud of the guys and how they battled—I really am—but I just look at all the mistakes that we made, and we have to correct them.”
Cleveland did many things well in the most exciting game of the season—one that will likely be labeled the best game of the year once the regular season commences. This team has been doing things well all season to get to 9-4 and weeks away from breaking a 17-year playoff drought.
When looking at just the matchups against the Ravens, Cleveland adjusted really well, correcting mistakes that led to a complete blowout in Week 1; the strides this team has made since that 38-6 loss should be celebrated—in moderation. Cleveland continues to grow on offense, which runs through Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Mayfield can lean heavily into play-action as these two backs open up the field. He’s not over-compensating; Mayfield had to largely make his own success Monday. In just the last two weeks, he has played well against quality opponents in the AFC. But Cleveland still has to find a way to win in their division, because playing well won’t be enough in the postseason—and playing well doesn’t always translate to wins. This team has struggled to beat quality opponents.
“There can either be good or bad to come from this,” Mayfield said. “You can start pointing fingers, but that’s not this team. We know that we need to fight and make the plays to win when we need to.”
There are really two outcomes for Cleveland: It can be last season’s Tennessee Titans or it can be reminiscent of the 2017 Buffalo Bills. The former would mean a deep playoff run, continued success from Mayfield and the run game, plus sustained success in 2021; I’m not entirely convinced any one of the three will happen let alone all three at once. Similar to Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill, Mayfield has been surprisingly solid, causing a few naysayers to give him his flowers—I’ll keep mine until I see Mayfield play this well next season. Similar to Tennessee, Cleveland is largely powered by its run game, so the fact that Mayfield can hold his own under center is a sign things could move in the right direction.
The only problem is multiple things have to go correctly. Cleveland needs the return of a healthy Denzel Ward; the cornerback missed his third consecutive game with a lingering calf injury. Myles Garrett needs to continue his tear as a pass rusher, which will continue with or without the overall success of Cleveland. Most importantly, Mayfield cannot regress—not in the slightest, or else we’re looking at the latter of the two options.
There was something to celebrate when Buffalo broke its longest playoff drought, but immediately losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the wild-card round was disappointing; it can’t be enough to just get to the postseason, not with divisions like the NFC East producing six- or five-win playoff teams. In the seasons that followed, Buffalo either completely missed the playoffs (2018) or lost again in the first week of the postseason (2019). Josh Allen was introduced to the offense in the middle of their supposed resurgence. Now, Allen is almost quietly bringing the Bills to glory. If Cleveland does bust early in the playoffs and continues an unsuccessful postseason skid for the next couple of seasons, there’s some lingering hope that it’ll be able to turn things around if everything goes just right.
Cleveland fans are happy they finally have something to cheer for, I get it. But I’m here to tell you the bar should be higher. If Cleveland proves to be last year’s Titans, enjoy the sustained success because we all know it’s been a while. If Cleveland ends up like the old Bills, well, it might be a few more years before fans can truly bask in any glory.
- Aug 22, 2022
- Aug 22, 2022