CINCINNATI — In a week like no other, the Browns delivered a performance that felt comfortably familiar.
Sunday's 41-16 rout of the Bengals was a throwback to the second half of 2020, when the Browns started playing the kind of complementary, opportunistic football that resulted in the team's farthest trek through the playoffs in a generation. The Browns made big plays on offense, bigger plays on defense and never let the Bengals back into the game once they seized control.
It was the kind of "galvanizing" victory Browns coach Kevin Stefanski sought at the start of a week that began with outside noise and speculation swirling about the future of WR Odell Beckham Jr., who will be granted his release. The Browns responded with a great week of practice and the necessary focus to rebound from a disappointing loss to the Steelers, collect their first AFC North win of the season and set themselves up in a much better position to make the kind of run they made in 2020.
"When adversity hit, nobody flinched," QB Baker Mayfield said. "It was a long week — I'd be lying if I said otherwise. Proud of these guys and how they were able to focus and do their jobs. We've got a good group. We really do."
That started with Mayfield, himself, who had his best overall performance of the season.
He finished 14-of-21 for 218 yards and two touchdowns, spreading the wealth to eight different pass-catchers and connecting on a game-changing, 60-yard touchdown to Donovan Peoples-Jones to stake the Browns to a two-score advantage they wouldn't relinquish through the final three quarters.
The 60-yard connection, which directly followed a fourth-down stop by the defense, was Mayfield's second-longest of the season and the type of field-stretching play that had been missing from Cleveland's offense in recent games. Entering the week, the Browns vowed to make the passing game more explosive, and that's exactly what happened, as Mayfield completed four passes of 20+ to keep the Bengals defense on its heels and make life a little easier for Nick Chubb, who cleared 100 yards for the 20th time in his career by breaking off a 70-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
"You look at the back half of last year, that's pretty much how we were the whole time. Spread the wealth," Mayfield said. "That's not by plan, but that's how defenses are going to play us because our run game is obviously very, very good so we have to take advantage of one-on-one matchups."
The defense won theirs on this day, too, and it resulted in the game-changing turnovers that had been missing through most of the first half of the season.
It started with Denzel Ward, who made arguably the biggest play of the game on Cincinnati's game-opening drive when he picked off Joe Burrow at the 1-yard line and ran it all the way back for the second pick-six of his career. It was effectively a 14-point swing at a moment when it appeared the Browns were in for a long day against the Bengals' prolific offense.
Instead, it was a tone-setter, as Cleveland forced two more takeaways to give them three for the game. The Browns entered Sunday's game having forced just three takeaways in their past five games combined.
"That's been an emphasis," Ward said. "We've been working it in practice and finding ways to get interceptions, get takeaways by punching the ball out, whatever we've got to do. Come game time, the coaches called a great game, got guys to attack the ball and we were able to do that this game."
Starting Wednesday, the Browns emphasized how important Sunday was when it came to their long-term goals for the season — no matter the outside noise that swirled.
S John Johnson III, who played in a Super Bowl with the Rams, described it as a tipping point of sorts, saying the team could either go in the tank or set itself up for the kind of run teams need to make in order to play beyond the regular season. Stefanski said the team needed to be "desperate" for a win.
On Sunday, the Browns did just that. Now, they have to do it again and again — just like they did at this point last year — in order for this particular win to be ultimately considered a turning point.
"We always want to go 1-0. That's the first step and we got that accomplished," Johnson said. "Next week we've got another road opponent, and we've got to go 1-0 again that week.
"It's a good first step, but we've got to keep it going."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Bengals in Week Nine