It’s a good thing style points don’t matter in the NFL. On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns squeaked out a 14-7 win against coach Kevin Stefanski's former team, the Minnesota Vikings. For (almost) all of one drive, the Browns’ offense was balanced, confident and dangerous. Outside of that, it looked jumbled, clunky and confused. The good news? Outside of one drive where it also looked disheveled, the Browns’ defense continues to look legit. Sure, it wasn’t a perfect afternoon (more on that later), but this was the second week in a row where the Browns defense looked like a force. With Cleveland moving into a first-place tie with the Cincinnati Bengals (boy, that feels weird to type), here are our takeaways before the Browns travel to the West Coast next Sunday to take on the Los Angeles Chargers at 4:05 p.m.
Sunday was one of the worst games of Baker Mayfield’s career, and the Browns won. On Oct. 29, 2017, Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer went 18-for-34 for 179 yards in a 33-16 Vikings win. On Sunday, Mayfield went 15-for-33 for 155 yards in a 14-7 Browns win. Hard to believe. This Browns team is built to win even if Mayfield isn’t at his best, which is good, considering no quarterback is going to be at their best 17 times a year (or more, if you make playoffs). Now, that doesn’t mean Mayfield can go out and have a stinker every week, but there’s no need to panic (not yet at least). That said, this game is on the short list for the worst starts of his career. Not only did he miss a fair share of open throws, but there were also more than a couple of occasions where he had open receivers and held the ball. Again, it’s not time to panic over Mayfield’s play, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
The red zone offense was… something. The Browns lone touchdown capped off an 18-play, 64-yard drive. A third of those plays came inside the Vikings' red zone, as the Browns red zone execution was, in two words, not good. After a Wyatt Teller holding call pushed the Browns to the Vikings' 15 yard line, the Browns gained three yards on three plays before a Vikings penalty on fourth down gave them four more shots. The new series didn’t start much better, as it started with an incompletion and run for no gain. Kareem Hunt finally ran it in from one yard out to (mercifully) end the drive. Ironically, the Vikings committed a penalty on the extra point that allowed for the Browns to get a two-point conversion. It was interesting to see the Browns throw so much so close to the red zone, but luckily for Stefanski, the Vikings defense was equally bad.
The Browns defense got Greedy. Greedy Williams picked the perfect time to record his first career interception, picking off Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins on the first play after Browns kicker Chase McLaughlin’s fourth-quarter field goal. While it didn’t end the game, it was a huge momentum swing that allowed for the Browns to kill some more clock. After being MIA for most of the Browns’ first four games, Williams made the most of his first start since 2019. In other secondary news, Browns cornerback Denzel Ward put together a solid day after allowing a touchdown from wide receiver Justin Jefferson on Minnesota’s opening drive. With running back Dalvin Cook clearly not 100% (he had 34 yards on nine carries), the Browns’ secondary was able to shut down Minnesota’s pass attack.
Kareem Hunt showed his versatility. In my mind, Hunt starts for every NFL team aside from the Titans and Panthers. Instead, he’s 1b to Nick Chubb. But I think Sunday’s game showed exactly how important he is to Cleveland's offense. After scoring the Browns only rushing touchdown last week, Hunt hit pay dirt again against the Vikings, scoring Cleveland’s lone touchdown. While Chubb had more touches (100 yards on 21 carries), Hunt’s versatility and squirrelly running style gives defenses fits. It’s hard to believe that both Hunt and Chubb are averaging more than five yards a carry (5.4 for Chubb, 5.2 for Hunt). It's truly a testament to Cleveland’s stellar offensive line and each running back's prowess.
The next few weeks will show us a lot about the Browns. At this point, it’s clear the Browns are a playoff team. By no means are they perfect or even playing at their highest ability, but they’re definitely one of the seven best teams in the AFC. The next three games will show us where they stand among those seven teams. After traveling across the country to play quarterback Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers next week, the Browns host the AFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals before the 3-1 Denver Broncos visit FirstEnergy Stadium on a short week. The combined record of the Vikings, Bears and Texans (the three teams the Browns have beaten)? 4-8. The Chargers, Cardinals and Broncos? 9-1. Buckle up, Cleveland.