What a week that was, eh Cleveland? For four days, the only thing coming out of Berea was drama, YouTube videos and a roster transaction heard around the NFL. With all that looming over their heads, the Cleveland Browns traveled to Paul Brown stadium and… had their best game of the season? With seemingly everyone’s focus drawn to what was happening off the field, the Browns came out and blew the doors off a good Cincinnati Bengals team in a win that could turn around their season. Before the Browns shift their focus to the New England Patriots this week, here’s what we learned from the win.
That was one of the best games of the Stefanski era… If Cleveland’s showing on Sunday wasn’t the team’s best game since Stefanski took over, it’s in the top five. After laying an egg against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week (and then having a week filled with distractions), the Browns were ready from the opening kick. The Browns out gained the Bengals 361-348 (despite running 24 less plays on offense) and were +3 in the turnover margin. This was a game the Browns needed to win (for a multitude of reasons), and they did more than just win: They silenced the noise (for a week) while putting the rest of the division on notice.
…and it showed the strength of the Browns’ locker room. Now about that noise. On Friday, the Browns made the right decision of cutting ties with Odell Beckham Jr. (the move won’t be official until Monday because the NFL’s weird). It’s disappointing that Beckham didn’t work out in Cleveland, but good on general manager Andrew Berry and the rest of his staff to realize that a break was needed. The acquisition of Beckham in 2019 was the start of a new era in Cleveland football, and, as a part of that, Beckham was also held to a weird standard since he was the first established name the Browns had acquired since they returned in 1999. His signing was supposed to kick off a period filled with victories and super teams. While those dreams have mostly come true, Beckham was either injured or ineffective for most of those games.
It was clear that he and Mayfield, for whatever reason, couldn’t establish any chemistry, which is fine, that happens in football. What isn’t fine, however, is when it becomes an off-the-field distraction. Beckham will probably go on to succeed wherever he ends up next (I’d love to see him end up in New Orleans or Seattle if he clears waivers), and that’s okay. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. That said, the Browns coaching staff deserves kudos for preparing their team to play despite all the noise made about the Beckham decision. It’s easy to see some teams folding after having that hanging over their heads all week, but the Browns did the exact opposite.
Nick Chubb (and the offensive line) proved their worth. There aren’t many running backs like Nick Chubb. While I’ve spilled plenty of digital ink praising Cleveland’s offensive line for the success in the run game, Chubb takes this running game to another level, something that was evident on both of his touchdown runs. On the first one, the fourth-year back initially looked to be stopped on Cincinnati’s one-yard line before he squirmed his way into the end zone. While it didn’t look incredibly impressive, it’s a move that not many running backs pull off in that situation.
And as for the second? Well, it was vintage Chubb, as he took a handoff from Mayfield, found a hole on the left side of the line, ran through an arm tackle and hit another level in the Bengals secondary. Now, one of the biggest reasons Chubb was able to get the secondary and make those men miss was due to the offensive line opening up huge holes for him. Even with Jack Conklin out, Cleveland’s offense line showed out again.
The defense finally stepped up. For the first time this season, we saw what the Browns defense is capable of. On a day that started with corner Denzel Ward intercepting Joe Burrow for a 99-yard house call, Cleveland’s defense stepped up and made the quarterback uncomfortable all afternoon. In addition to the pick six, Ward limited Bengals star receiver Ja’Marr Chase to 49 yards, arguably the biggest reason the Browns were able to hold the Bengals to 16 points.
Tee Higgins led the Bengals with 78 yards receiving while Burrow (28-for-40 for 282 yards and two interceptions) failed to find the end zone for the first time this season. Anthony Walker (14 tackles, one sack) and Troy Hill (seven tackles, two sacks) were both forces from the linebacker and safety spot, respectively. The Browns defense has the talent to shut down any offense in the league, and Sunday was the first time we got to see that talent match up with the game plan.
Baker Mayfield picked a heck of a week to put it all together. For most of the week, the conversation about the Browns was based around whether the split with Beckham was due in part to Mayfield’s limitations as a quarterback. On Sunday, Mayfield shut that conversation down (at least temporarily), going 14-for-21 for 218 yards and two touchdowns. His first touchdown came in the second quarter when he uncorked a beautiful deep ball that fell right into the hands of receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones. While that throw was no doubt impressive, I was more impressed with his second touchdown throw to David Njoku, where he stood tall in the pocket (much like he did in 2018) and threw Njoku open with a ball placed in a tight window. It’s been a weird season, month and week for Mayfield, but Sunday was a step in the right direction.