Asked all week if they were ready for the bright lights of big-time, December football, the Browns delivered a resounding first response.
And it even came with some history.
The Browns, led by a red-hot Baker Mayfield, scored every time they had the ball in what became the best first half in franchise history. Cleveland never trailed and led comfortably for the vast majority of Sunday's win over the AFC South-leading Titans, a highlight-filled 41-35 victory at Nissan Stadium in Nashville.
"I give credit to the players. We talked all week about our work during the week was going to be a determining factor in how we play, and the guys worked their butts off all week," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "They understand what a good operation looks like and what efficient football looks like, and I was proud of how they played."
The Browns, in extending their winning streak to four, moved to 9-3, sealed a 4-0 record against the AFC South and clinched the team's first winning record since 2007. Cleveland, though, wants so much more, and Sunday's win put it one step closer to playing games beyond the regular season.
"I feel like all wins are statements," DE Myles Garrett said. "Everybody is paid in the NFL to do their job and no matter who you are going against, they are going to give you their best shot. We gave each other a good exchange and we came out on the winning side this time."
The Browns, who maintained throughout the week fans had yet to see their best football of the year, played their best 30 minutes of the season in the first half, scoring five touchdowns and a field goal on their six first half-possessions. The 38 first-half points were the team's most-ever in a single half, beating the mark of 35, which was set in 2004 vs. Cincinnati. The Browns out-gained the Titans, 344-150, dominated time of possession and converted seven-of-eight third downs.
Check out photos of the Browns against the Titans
Mayfield threw for four of those first-half touchdowns, making him the first Browns QB to hit that number in the first half of a game since Otto Graham in Dec. 1951. Mayfield finished the first half 20-of-25 for 290 yards and four touchdowns and ended the game 25-for-33 for 334 yards — his most in a game since Week 4 of 2019.
"He was hot. He was hot. He continued to stay hot," WR Jarvis Landry said. "Everything has been coming off of opportunities. He had the opportunity to drop back and make the plays that we all knew he could make."
Mayfield hasn't thrown an interception in his last 156 passes, a streak that stretches all the way back to his first pass of the Browns' Week 7 win over the Bengals.
"He is playing at a high level, and he has to continue to do so," Stefanski said. "We are counting on him, and he knows that."
Nine different players caught a pass in the first half, including Mayfield, whose toe-tapping 3-yard reception on a third-down pass from Landry extended the team's first of five consecutive touchdown drives. Austin Hooper's catch in the third quarter gave the Browns' 10 different players with at least one catch in the game.
Mayfield fired his touchdown passes to four different players, including T Kendall Lamm, who caught the first pass of his NFL career to give the Browns a 17-0 advantage early in the second quarter. Landry caught the first and rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones had the longest, a 75-yarder that came on the first play of the ensuing drive after Tennessee scored its only points of the half.
"Up front, the protection was great, and our guys were getting open and making those plays," Mayfield said. "It is a combination. Expect to come in and make some of these plays, and our guys are getting open. We base our gameplan and our style of play off the run game, but we are going to do whatever it takes to win week in and week out. In the first half, that was spreading them out and doing some things to take care of some empty space."
Rashard Higgins led the Browns with six catches, 95 yards and a touchdown. Peoples-Jones had two for 92 and his touchdown and Landry had eight catches for 62 yards and his second touchdown in as many weeks.
Cleveland's emphatic first half provided just enough cushion to weather an uneasy second half that saw the Titans score two quick touchdowns early in the third quarter and add two more over a 55-second span late in the fourth quarter. Alas, Andy Janovich fell on the Titans' final onside kick attempt to seal the victory.
"All of these games, they are hard. Winning is hard in this National Football League," Stefanski said. "There are a bunch of good teams, and they are coming at your week in and week out. I think our guys understand that we are just looking to go 1-0 each week, and there is so much work that goes into going 1-0."
The Browns didn't need their usual numbers from Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who combined for 113 yards on 32 carries. Chubb scored the Browns' final touchdown of the first half, notched his NFL-best 11th run of 20 yards or more in the third quarter and finished with 80 yards for the game. Tennessee's Derrick Henry, the reigning NFL rushing champion and current NFL leader, was held to 15 yards in the first half and finished with 60, his second-lowest total of the season.
QB Ryan Tannehill led the Titans' second-half comeback and finished with 389 yards and three touchdowns. His favorite target was Corey Davis, who hauled in 11 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown.
The Browns won the turnover advantage, 3-1, against a Titans team that came into Sunday's game with just five turnovers on the entire season. Henry's fumble, which was recovered by S Karl Joseph, near the end of the first quarter set up Lamm's touchdown, and M.J. Stewart's interception late in the third quarter slammed the brakes on a Tennessee drive that threatened to slice further into the Browns' advantage.
"(Defensive coordinator) Joe Woods and the defensive staff did an outstanding job putting a plan together, and then the guys, they played it," Stefanski said. "To get three takeaways versus a team that does not give the ball up was really impressive."
The Browns' only turnover came with less than a minute to play, as Mayfield fumbled while attempting a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1. The Titans recovered and ultimately turned it into a touchdown on the ensuing drive. It was too little, too late, though, as the Browns' advantage was just too much to overcome.
Garrett, back after a two-game absence, collected a sack in the second half to give him 10.5 on the season.
The Browns are back in Cleveland for Monday Night Football next week when they host the Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium.
"We are going to be happy about this win until we wake up tomorrow, and then we are on to the next," Mayfield said. "This is not the end of the season. This is not what we set out to do. We did not set out to be 9-3. There is a lot of ball left, and we hope that way so job is not finished."