Baker Mayfield felt awful.
Not only was his first pass Sunday an interception — marking the second straight game in which his first throw went for an interception — but it also ended with Odell Beckham Jr. suffering a knee injury while trying to chase down Bengals CB Darius Phillips. The injury would sideline the Pro Bowl wide receiver for the rest of the game and could keep him off the field for potentially longer.
"I am probably going to beat myself up about that one for a long time," Mayfield said. "He is a guy who fights for this team, and in doing that, he got hurt. Prayers and hopes for the best. That one sucks."
Mayfield touched base with Beckham in the locker room at halftime as the Browns trailed, 17-10. Beckham had a simple message for Mayfield, who regrouped from a rough first quarter with an efficient second to keep the Browns within striking distance.
"Go be great," Beckham said.
Mayfield didn't just remember it. He responded in exactly the fashion Beckham requested, and it's the biggest reason why Cleveland sits at 5-2 after a wild, 37-34 victory over the Bengals.
"That was what he left me with to open up the second half," Mayfield said. "That was something I continued to remember throughout the second half."
After an 0-for-5 start, Mayfield went 21-for-22 for 297 yards and five touchdowns with the lone incompletion coming on a clock-stopping spike on the Browns' game-winning touchdown drive. His completion streak of 21 blew away the Browns' franchise record, which was previously shared by Bernie Kosar and Kelly Holcomb, and his touchdowns were the most in a game by a Cleveland signal-caller in 13 years.
Most importantly, Mayfield showed the Browns can win when they're on the ropes and in need of a jolt through the air. Sunday's win was Cleveland's first of the season in which the team trailed at halftime. It was also the first in which the team didn't rush for more than 100 yards.
"He is resilient. He fights. He scratches. That is what he has done his whole life," G Joel Bitonio said. "I did not know what the stats were, but I know we started playing well on offense and it had a lot to do with Baker Mayfield. On that last drive, no quit, no timeouts and to come down and make a play like that to win the game, it is big time stuff. It was very impressive."
Beckham's words of encouragement were among the many Mayfield received after last week's loss in Pittsburgh, one of the worst of Mayfield's career. Mayfield labored through a chest injury and ultimately didn't finish the game after throwing two interceptions and leading only one scoring drive.
The pain from the injury still lingers, but Mayfield didn't let the sting of the loss hang with him. Even after his tough first quarter Sunday, Mayfield's focus was clear.
"Throughout this week, I was reminded by some very key people and very important people in my life that I have support from them no matter what," Mayfield said. "That was extremely vital throughout the day. Knowing that we were going to out the second half of play for O also goes with that. Keeping the faith and keeping the belief is extremely important. I have made it this far because I had people supporting me along the way, no matter the circumstances."
Mayfield officially got rolling with a play-action rollout to his right with 11:09 left in the first half. He fired a completion to Jarvis Landry, and the Pro Bowl wide receiver took it for 28 yards. Three completions and nine plays later, Mayfield connected with rookie Harrison Bryant for a 3-yard touchdown to even the score, 10-10.
Even though the Browns wouldn't get the ball back until the start of the second half, Mayfield and the Browns knew they had something cooking. And it was also clear the offense's margin of error would be razor thin on a day in which Bengals QB Joe Burrow threw for a career-best 406 yards.
"It does start with just executing, finding completions and keeping the change moving," Mayfield said. "After that, it was just everybody was in rhythm making plays."
Every passing play from that point forward looked to be the definition of "in rhythm," and the Browns needed every single one of them to hang with Cincinnati.
Mayfield simply didn't miss on the remainder of his throws. Never mind he was without Beckham or Pro Bowl TE Austin Hooper, who was out with appendicitis; Mayfield made it work with whoever was on the field. And on Sunday, that meant feeding the ball to the wide receiver with whom he's built unexplainable chemistry (Rashard Higgins) and two rookies, Bryant and WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, the latter of whom entered Sunday's game without a catch in the NFL.
Four of Mayfield's five touchdown passes were to his tight ends and running backs.
"Odell going down mid-game is not great, but we had a ton of guys step up," Mayfield said. "You never want to have to go through that, but this team is resilient, and our guys showed that today."
Chief among the most resilient was Mayfield, who continued to play through the pain of the chest injury he suffered late in the action Week 5 against the Colts. With Sunday's performance, Mayfield showed what the Browns are capable of doing through the air and when the game's on the line — no matter how many players are down with injuries or simply playing through them.
"He is gutting it out. He is a tough, tough kid. I think all of you guys know that about him," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "That does not surprise me that he is able to push through. It is not easy. He works hard at it. He grinds through it.
"That tells you the type of person we are dealing with here."