1. Baker Mayfield’s resiliency pays off on challenging night in Denver
His throws were sailing a bit. The defense kept making things tougher with a variety of different looks. Nothing came easy for Baker Mayfield on a night when the thinnest of margins would decide which team would keep its playoff hopes alive.
Mayfield’s first three quarters were a grind, but he came alive when his teammates needed him most after a T.J. Carrie interception set up the Browns with a golden opportunity. Mayfield delivered by completing all four of his pass attempts on an early fourth quarter drive that ended with the touchdown, a 2-yard pass to Antonio Callaway, that ultimately provided the difference in Cleveland’s 17-16 victory.
“It’s huge,” Mayfield said. “Being able to go down and see what they’re doing and get the ball into Callaway’s hands, it was huge for us. Anytime you’re on a drive like that, late in the game, the fourth quarter, being able to come out with a win is crucial. You have to make plays when it counts.”
That was Mayfield’s m.o. coming out of Oklahoma: a big-game player who thrived in the biggest moments. It’s one thing to do it in college; it’s another to rise to the occasion on an otherwise shaky night against one of the league’s perennially stout defenses.
Mayfield shrugged off a late second quarter interception and a fumble that put an unfortunate end to a nine-minute drive in the third quarter by sticking to what he does best. Mayfield threw his four passes to three different receivers -- Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins and Callaway -- and dialed in his focus even more when the Browns crossed the 20-yard line.
The Browns’ touchdown, which featured plenty of pre-snap adjustments by Mayfield, gave the team its 12th straight score upon entering the red zone. It’s where Mayfield has been his best since a mid-season coaching change.
“I really believe that Baker did a really good job of leading our team,” coach Gregg Williams said. “Our guys believe in him and he does a great job when you take this type of game and add it to his resume, add it to his leadership. I think it goes a long way in the locker room and on game day.”
Mayfield came out firing Saturday, connecting with Landry for 19 yards and Breshad Perriman for 31 on a touchdown pass that staked the Browns to a quick 7-0 lead. Sandwiched between the two touchdowns was a whole lot of ineffective offense, and Mayfield was at the center of it.
At one point in the first half, Mayfield was 4-of-12. His interception at the end of the second quarter sailed well over the head of Landry and, considering the Browns’ field position, took a potential field goal off the board.
Mayfield wasn’t worried, and he ultimately gave his teammates, coaches and fans one more performance to validate their belief in him.
“You have to hit the reset button. Stuff happens,” Mayfield said. “The game is never going to be perfect but the most important play is always the next one. Just realizing that and hitting the reset button and pushing forward. We’ve got to make plays when it counts and you have to have a fresh mindset.”
The Cleveland Browns play the Denver Broncos in Week 15.
2. Two of Browns’ biggest plays exorcised some personal demons
Perriman hadn’t caught a touchdown pass in more than two years. Carrie hadn’t intercepted a pass over the same stretch of time.
Both ended their respective droughts Saturday, and the Browns wouldn’t have won without them.
Perriman hauled in his first touchdown since Dec. 4, 2016, when he corralled a well-placed third-down pass early in the first quarter from Mayfield, who has gained more and more trust for Perriman since he joined the team Week 6. The former first-round pick has been a welcomed addition to Cleveland’s offense, and the degree of difficulty or magnitude of the moment hasn’t seemed to matter for him.
“He’s got a lot of confidence right now and I have a lot of confidence in him,” Mayfield said. “He’s making plays, as you guys have seen the last few weeks and that’s one of those things, not a lot of people can make that catch. A guy all over him, a high ball, go up and make a catch. A competitive catch at that. A huge play on third down and long, that was big time.”
Carrie didn’t endure quite the same journey as Perriman -- who was cut by the Ravens at the start of the season and was without a team for weeks -- since his last interception, but the timing couldn’t have been better. His pick gave Mayfield and the Browns offense just 48 yards to work with, and Cleveland made Denver pay with its go-ahead touchdown.
“It was a good, fortunate opportunity,” Carrie said. “Coach put us in the right call to put me in the perfect position to go make the play, and I ended up capitalizing.”
3. Browns limit Phillip Lindsay, Broncos running attack to next to nothing
Cleveland entered Saturday’s game as one of the league’s statistically worst run defenses. The Broncos, led by undrafted rookie sensation Phillip Lindsay, were one of the best.
No matchup, considering the aforementioned circumstances, wound up as much of a positive for Cleveland, which limited the Broncos to just 32 yards on 20 attempts. It was Cleveland’s best performance against the run by far, the next-best being the 62 it allowed to the Saints in Week 2. And it was the worst performance of the season -- by far -- for the Broncos, who were held to nearly 100 yards below their average.
“They were going eight in the box,” Lindsay said. “You all see it, everybody is there. It’s hard when you have eight in the box.”
The Browns saved their best moments against Lindsay for the end.
The Browns led by four but were backed up against their own goal line as the Broncos faced second-and-3 from the 8. Lindsay ran up the gut for 2 yards, setting up a third-and-1. Lindsay took the third-down pitch and was immediately swarmed. Carrie made the first contact, and Trevon Coley brought him to the ground, forcing the Broncos to settle for a field goal.
The Browns took away what the Broncos did best and forced them to beat them through the air. On this night, it was just enough to give Cleveland the edge it needed.