Rashard Higgins made two of his biggest plays in a Browns uniform on the final drive of Sunday's thrilling win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
The first play was only a short 8-yard gain on first-and-10 from Cleveland's 38. Higgins' reception inched the Browns a bit farther down field, but the importance of the play stems from what he did after the catch — after originally falling in bounds and avoiding a tackle, he crawled to the white turf to stop the clock at 40 seconds.
Failing to do that would've likely cost the Browns another 10 seconds or so to run a play, which could have prevented the Browns from finding the end zone later in the drive.
"I love being a smart player," Higgins said Sunday in his postgame interview. "I have to be going forward for the clock to stop. I just tried my best to get out of bounds and just made a play."
That set up an even more impressive effort on his next play. The Bengals sent a full blitz toward Mayfield, who lobbed a 30-yard pass to Higgins down the right sideline.
Higgins leaped into the air, extended both arms as high as possible and snagged the ball, which was perfectly placed for Higgins' jump. Higgins used every inch of his flexibility to make the catch and set up the game-winning touchdown throw from Mayfield to Donovan Peoples-Jones with 15 seconds left.
Check out the best photos from the Browns win over the Bengals yesterday by the Browns photo team
But Higgins' play carried just as much importance.
"The freeze-frame picture of him fully extended catching that and high-pointing the ball, that is a special play," Mayfield said. "That is one of those opportunity balls and just give the guy a chance, and he made an incredible play in one-on-one coverage."
Those two plays, as well as the four other catches Higgins made to bring his total to 110 receiving yards, highlight why the Browns are ready to roll with Higgins as a top receiver. They need to fill the gap from Odell Beckham Jr., who suffered a knee injury in the first quarter Sunday that will sideline him for the rest of the season.
Beckham will be missed, but the door is open for Higgins to capture a significant role in the offense after he entered Week 7 with only five receptions in 2020. Higgins proved he can make big plays in the clutch, and he could see more of those opportunities in coming weeks as the Browns continue to push for the playoffs.
"He has great ball skills," coach Kevin Stefanski said. "I think he is a savvy route runner. I think he understands coverage. That was obviously a very impressive catch. I think just as impressive was the back shoulder that Baker threw to him earlier in the game. Just a great feel for how coverage causes maybe the ball to be in a different spot, and I just think that is a savviness that he has."
Higgins' greatest strength is arguably his rapport with Mayfield, which has been well-documented since the duo first played together in training camp in 2018. Mayfield was a rookie at the time and took snaps with the second-team, which included Higgins, a fifth-round draft selection from Colorado State in 2016.
Mayfield and Higgins connected for several big plays throughout camp and the preseason. Their bond certainly helped Mayfield look ready for when he became the starting quarterback in Week 2, and with Mayfield under center, Higgins turned in a career-best season with 39 receptions for 572 yards and four touchdowns.
Higgins made four catches on 11 targets for 55 yards and a touchdown last season, but he'll likely have a chance to get back to his 2018 form and replenish his connection with Mayfield with his revamped role in the offense.
"That is our leader," Higgins said. "He knows me, and I know him. There is nothing to say about that. It's wine poured in a cup – smooth."
Higgins has been waiting for his moment to shine since his rookie season, which has left a long-lasting effect on his approach to his game. That was when the Browns underwent a difficult 0-16 season, and all three players on the Browns roster from that year — Higgins, right guard Joel Bitonio and long snapper Charley Hughlett — often use it as a source of motivation.
For Higgins, the turmoil of going a full season without a win has been a long-lasting punch to the gut.
"It hurts my stomach knowing that we actually went through that," Higgins said. "It made us tough. It made me tough. I just want to win at the end of the day and go to the playoffs."
The Browns are in a great position to fulfill that goal. With a 5-2 start, their best record in a season since 1994, Cleveland is firmly in the pack of teams readying for a playoff run. The efficiency of the offense has been a big reason for that, but now the Browns must answer the call to continue their success despite the loss of Beckham.
That puts Higgins in line to step up and make more contributions. He's craved this opportunity all season, and his chance has arrived.
"I'm going to do whatever it takes," he said.