1. Baker Mayfield’s torrid 3-game stretch a result of comfort, belief
This was how Baker Mayfield expected to play. The previous five starts didn’t really meet the standard he set for himself.
That’s how Mayfield summed it up Sunday after his latest, best performance of his rookie season. Doing almost all of his work in a dominant first half, Mayfield was 19-of-26 for 258 yards and four touchdowns -- the most by a Browns quarterback in nearly 10 years. Add it all up, and it was good for a quarterback rating of 143.9. By doing so, he became the first rookie in NFL history to post a quarterback rating of 140 or better (minimum 20 pass attempts) in consecutive games.
“That’s what I wanted to get accomplished,” Mayfield said, “which is taking care of the ball, getting the ball out quickly and putting us in a position to win. We had one sack maybe?”
The one time Cincinnati dropped Mayfield for a sack, a penalty negated it.
“So two games in a row with no interceptions and no sacks,” Mayfield continued. “That’s the goal, and it also needs to be the mentality.”
Since Cleveland made changes at head coach and offensive coordinator after an ugly Week 8 loss at Pittsburgh, Mayfield has turned himself into a frontrunner for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
After that gut-check loss at the midpoint of the season, Mayfield was completing 58 percent of his passes, averaging 245 yards per game and had eight touchdowns and six interceptions. In the three games since Gregg Williams took over as head coach and Freddie Kitchens assumed the role of offensive coordinator, Mayfield is 65-for-88 (74 percent) for 771 yards with nine touchdowns and just one interception. He took 20 sacks in his first six games and just two in the past three.
“Good calls and good execution,” Mayfield said. “My offensive line and our guys were making plays. They’re protecting, I’m getting the ball out quickly, getting it into our playmakers’ hands, and they’re doing the rest.
“We’re taking shots when they’re there, and we’re able to play aggressive. Against a team like that, you want to start fast. They’re a team that starts fast, so we needed to do that. We were emphasizing that all week. But yeah, a lot of that can be attributed to Freddie.”
As he warmed up before Sunday’s game, Mayfield was caught by cameras air-drumming to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” Mayfield’s loose, confident demeanor is gaining more and more attention outside of a Browns locker room that has seen it ever since he arrived as the No. 1 pick.
Told by Williams to “cut it loose” after a Week 9 loss to the Chiefs, Mayfield has embraced it even more. The results are following suit.
“As the experience continues, the comfortability grows,” Mayfield said. “There’s really nothing else to that. As I see more looks and more things, I’m going to be more comfortable. I just have to go out there and do my job, as I keep saying. It’s repetitive, but it’s the truth.”
2. Browns ‘made it interesting’ in a game they mostly controlled
Antonio Callaway’s touchdown catch late in the first quarter gave the Browns a double-digit lead they’d never relinquish. The advantage grew to 28 by the end of the first half and hit that plateau again after Darren Fells’ touchdown catch a little more than 2 minutes into the third quarter.
Still, there were some nervy feelings among Browns fans as Cincinnati clawed its way back into the game with two unanswered touchdowns. The game wasn’t sealed until the 3-minute mark in the fourth quarter, when the Browns forced the Bengals to turn it over on downs at Cleveland’s 13-yard line.
Williams cited a few costly penalties -- none more so than a roughing the passer call that negated a fourth-down stop and ultimately led to a Bengals touchdown -- as reasons why the Browns couldn’t completely put away the Bengals. Offensively, the Browns punted on all four of their possessions after the Fells touchdown and picked up just a handful of first downs.
Chalk it up as a learning experience for a team that hadn’t been in that sort of situation in quite some time.
“I talked to our coordinators, and we decided to stay with our plan. The big thing was, keeping the football in-bounds,” Williams said. “We were not going to change our play call structure. We could have probably executed a few more things better in the second half, but those are things we have to learn from.”
3. David Njoku’s TD grab fun for everyone
David Njoku jumped early. That much was clear.
In a first half like Sunday’s, when seemingly everything went right for the Browns, it didn’t matter. Njoku took a screen from Mayfield at the 10, ran toward the end zone and leaped for the goal line … from the 4-yard line.
"He thinks he can fly, anyway,” defensive end Chris Smith said. “He thinks he's fly, too."
Njoku was stopped and wrapped up by Bengals defenders. Still, he didn’t fall. His friends on the offensive line, spearheaded by center JC Tretter and right guard Kevin Zeiter, and running back Duke Johnson gave him the push he needed to propel across the goal line for a touchdown.
When Njoku got up, he promptly handed the ball to left guard Joel Bitonio. He offered up a set of simple instructions.
“Do the Chief Slam,” Bitonio said, referencing Njoku’s trademark, leaping touchdown celebration.
So, Bitonio obliged.
“I was going to do the big man spike, but he said Chief Slam,” Bitonio said. “So I'm like, ‘I can't let him down now.’”