1. Even in losing effort, Browns showed they’ll be a tough out in AFC North for years to come
The ending of the final game of the season was, for all intents and purposes, the same.
With a chance to win in the game’s final minutes, the Browns came up short on fourth down inside their opponent’s territory. Just like they did in Pittsburgh in 2017, the Browns went home to Cleveland on the wrong end of a close game.
There was just so much different about how they reached that point and how they felt about what’s next as they walked out of the visiting locker room.
Even before Sunday’s 26-24 loss to the Ravens, the Browns had already posted the biggest turnaround in franchise history. Cleveland went from zero wins to seven wins and clinched its first winning season against division opponents since the AFC North was created in 2002.
It was a big step forward for a team that believes its biggest steps will be achieved sooner rather than later.
“The AFC North is a battle every year, and I think it’s probably still one of the toughest divisions in football,” offensive lineman Joel Bitonio said. “I think they understand when they play the Browns it’s going to be a battle just like every other team in the division.”
That’s exactly what Baltimore — with everything on the line in its pursuit of a playoff spot — got against a Browns team that had their playoff hopes ended last weekend. Cleveland took an early lead, fell in a two-touchdown hole and clawed its way back into it with a chance to win with less than 2 minutes to play.
One of the biggest sources of optimism for Cleveland’s future, rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, played a big part in putting them in that position. Though he threw two interceptions in the first half, Mayfield delivered big throw after big throw to get Cleveland back in the game and on the precipice of game-winning field-goal range on the Browns’ final drive.
“There was a ton of belief,” safety Jabrill Peppers said. “We see it every day in practice. We practice those situations every day. He was moving the ball and the defense just made a great play.”
That great play came on Mayfield’s last throw of the season, a short pass intended for an open Duke Johnson Jr. that was tipped and nabbed by Ravens Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley. The Ravens earned their AFC North crown the hard way, and the Browns made them sweat it out for the full 60 minutes.
Even in the raw moments after the loss, Browns players were prideful in how they represented themselves on a national stage in a playoff-like atmosphere.
“Obviously things in the first half weren't going very well, but for us to fight back and make it a ball game, it shows a lot about who we are,” Mayfield said. “Obviously very disappointing for us to not come out with a win, but that’s a great team, that’s a playoff team. We want to be in their spot this time next year. We want to be in the playoffs. So it’s gonna be a tough loss. It’s gonna be one that hurts, especially knowing that that was a game that got them in the playoffs.”
Photos: Browns play Ravens in season finale
The Cleveland Browns play the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 17.
2. Jarvis Landry laments what could have been
A controversial quick whistle prevented the Browns from turning a fumble recovery on their own goal line into a game-changing touchdown late in the second quarter. It was a play that left plenty of players miffed and wondering how differently the game would have played out had it been ruled in Cleveland’s favor.
Wide receiver Jarvis Landry, meanwhile, was only focused on what happened in the immediate aftermath.
“I had an opportunity before halftime to put six points on the board,” Landry said. “We should have never been in that situation.”
A video review of the play in question — Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson reaching the ball short of the goal line and fumbling it away to the Browns — gave the ball to Cleveland at its own 7-yard line late in the second quarter. On first-and-10, Mayfield looked deep down the middle of the field for Landry, who had no defenders around him. Landry spun his head to catch the pass only to have it clang off his helmet and shoulder pads.
Landry made up for it on Cleveland’s first play of the second half, catching a 48-yard touchdown to get the Browns within six. That just never came up as Landry talked from the locker room, as he repeatedly came back to the one play he couldn’t complete.
“I just didn’t make the play,” Landry said.
3. Get used to Baker vs. Lamar
The first showdown between Mayfield and Jackson certainly lived up to its billing. The former Heisman Trophy winners led their respective teams to a flurry of wins during the second half of the season and saved some of their best plays for Sunday’s regular season finale.
Mayfield had his third 300-yard game of the season and his fourth with three or more touchdown passes. Jackson had two touchdown runs, 90 rushing yards and 179 passing yards.
It was a match of two talented quarterbacks with two completely different styles who had their fair share of doubters coming out of college but are poised to lead their respective teams for plenty of years to come. And they’ll meet twice a year starting next season.
“Everybody sees it a different way but I think people that know the game of football know that winning is the most important thing,” Mayfield said. “Whoever gives you the best opportunity to win, that comes in all shapes and sizes. It comes from all different types of leadership. It comes from guys that love the game and know how to get the best out of their players.”