It was all right there for the taking. Less than two minutes left. Hostile environment. Game (and potentially the season) on the line. And in a continuation of a season-long trend, the Cleveland Browns blew it at the end. With 50 seconds left and the ball at the 50-yard line, quarterback Baker Mayfield threw a game-ending interception that finalized the Green Bay Packers’ 24-22 win over the Browns. It was another frustrating chapter in a season that’s been full of countless late game frustrations and setbacks. Before heading to Pittsburgh next Monday night, here are our takeaways from the loss that might have squashed the Browns’ playoff dreams.
It’s time to sound the alarm on Baker Mayfield.
For most of the season, we’ve tried to use this space to preach patience around Baker Mayfield. Now, whether it’s because of his status as a former No. 1 pick or because he’s the first Browns quarterback to have sustained success since Bernie Kosar, Mayfield has been, and forever will be, viewed unfairly.
When it comes to discussing Mayfield, it seems as if there’s no moderation — people either think he’s the franchise savior or that he doesn’t deserve to see the field. For most of this season, Mayfield’s shown us who he is: average. Very, very average. While he’s not going to win you a game by himself, he can keep his team in a game, so long as he doesn’t make any egregious mistakes — which is OK. While any team quarterbacked by Mayfield will have a clear ceiling, there’s a blueprint for teams having continued success under that model (see Vikings, Minnesota).
The bad news for Browns fans, however, is that Mayfield spent most of Saturday making egregious errors. Prior to his game-clinching interception, which we’ll touch on in a second, Mayfield had thrown three killer interceptions (along with having a Packers defender drop what would have been an easy interception). Mayfield finished the day 21-for-36 passing for 222 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. He became the first Browns quarterback since Brandon Weeden (remember him?) to throw four interceptions in one game.
While Mayfield helped led two scoring drives in the second half to keep the Browns in it, Saturday’s loss shined the spotlight on his warts. General manager Andrew Berry and co. have two more weeks to decide if they want to continue to build their team around those warts.
Don’t blame the officiating for the loss.
Now, that isn’t to say the officials are exempt from missing the hold/defensive pass interference on wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones on Mayfield’s final interception, because they’re not. The interception was clearly set up because of interference. Take a look for yourself.
But that call didn’t lose the Browns this game.
If Mayfield hits tight end David Njoku on either of his previous two passes, the Browns are in field goal range and passing becomes the least of the Browns concerns. Or even better, if Mayfield cuts down on his interceptions, then who knows what kind of position the Browns are in. The no call was obviously frustrating, but the Browns had plenty of opportunities to make sure the game didn’t come down to a blown call.
Nick Chubb continues to be really good (and he still doesn’t get the ball enough)
Despite averaging totaling 219 rushing yards on 8.8 yards per rush (the second highest rushing average a team has compiled this year), the Browns still struggled to move the ball for most of the first half. After trading field goals and punts with the Packers in the third quarter, Chubb and D'Ernest Johnson woke up in the fourth quarter, as they totaled 50 yards on the Browns’ touchdown drive before Chubb had 18 yards rushing leading up to Mayfield’s interception.
All of this presents an obvious question: where was this earlier in the game? Part of the reason most of Chubb’s yards came in the second half was due to the fact he only had five (five!!!) carries in the first half. Now, there’s obviously something to be said about increasing the number of rushes later in the game (when defenses are, in theory, more tired), but only letting Chubb get five first-half rushes is a prime example of Stefanski hustling backwards.
On that same note, Stefanski decision to call three straight passes at the 50 yard line with a minute left and three timeouts becomes even more puzzling considering the success Chubb and Johnson were having on the ground.
Devante Adams unwrapped the Browns defense
While it’s worth noting that the Browns’ defense tightened up in the second half, wide receiver Devante Adams absolutely feasted on Cleveland’s secondary, totaling 114 yards and two touchdowns on 10 receptions. Both touchdowns came on single coverage, as Adams put defensive backs Richard LeCounte and M.J. Stewart into the goal line torture chamber. With mock draft season getting closer and closer, a crafty, possession receiver like Adams should be at the top of the Browns’ draft board (Garrett Wilson, anyone?)
So, you’re telling me there’s a chance?
Believe it or not, the Browns’ playoff chances aren’t buried yet. They may be six feet in the dirt, but they’re not covered in dirt yet. Sure, they’ll need a lot of help to get there, but Browns still have a path to the postseason, due in large part to the fact they close out the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. Win both those games, and there’s a chance the AFC North crown resides in Cleveland. That said, the Browns don’t need to be here. With the loss, they’ve have now lost six games by six or fewer points, the most in the NFL. Win half of those games and the postseason is a guarantee, not a far-fetched question.