Baker Mayfield was not going to let the Browns' final drive Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium end without a touchdown.
Until that point, Mayfield was on a roll. He had completed 18 consecutive passes since the start of the second quarter. He felt as though he could throw the ball to anyone with pinpoint accuracy. So, as the offense waited to take the field with 66 seconds left and the Browns down three to the Bengals, Mayfield wanted to make sure his teammates were thinking the same thing he was.
A few players mentioned the need to get to the 30-yard line with enough time for a field goal. That was the minimum goal the Browns needed to accomplish, but Mayfield wasn't having it.
"Screw that," Mayfield said in the huddle. "We're going to go down and win.'"
The odds were stacked against the Browns, who were battling through a series of injuries to key players and needed all of their depth to stay alive. Mayfield's words, however, were the final rally cry needed to seal a win on a wild afternoon in Cincinnati.
Cleveland orchestrated a five-play, 75-yard drive, which ended with an improbable, toe-tapping 24-yard touchdown catch from rookie WR Donovan Peoples-Jones in the final minute to secure the Browns' 37-34 thrilling win and deliver the final blow in a back-and-forth battle against their AFC North rival. The Browns answered every blow the Bengals made, and when the time came for one big final moment, Cleveland responded with one of its best drives of the season.
"The story of our season is guys stepping up," coach Kevin Stefanski said. "We had a lot of examples of guys doing that. This was a great team win."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Bengals
Cleveland was already slashed with several injuries to key players before the team made the trip to Cleveland. Stefanski revealed Friday that tight end Austin Hooper underwent surgery for appendicitis and was out Sunday. Wide receiver Jarvis Landry said earlier in the week that he was playing through a broken rib. Mayfield had played through a chest injury in the last two games, as well.
Mayfield and Landry were still on the field for the Browns' first snap, but to make matters worse, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. left the game with a knee injury after the first passing play of the game. He did not return.
Oh, and that passing play? It was an interception, and the Bengals scored on the next drive. Suddenly, Cleveland faced an even taller mountain of adversity to climb.
The Browns were down to three wide receivers. They did not have their starting tight end. Their starting quarterback, playing with an injury, opened the game 0-for-5.
"We were not connecting," Stefanski said. "We talked about having to play for three hours-plus today. That is what it was going to take."
The game could've spiraled out of control from there. The Bengals, meanwhile, were moving the ball efficiently with rookie quarterback Joe Burrow and his deep crop of receivers. Cincinnati totaled nine first downs and 111 total yards in the first quarter. The Browns had yet to complete a pass.
That's when everything slowly began to change. Even though the Browns didn't have their first lead until the fourth quarter, they never trailed by more than a touchdown. Mayfield began to find his groove and build a streak of consecutive passes completed despite not having Hooper and Beckham as options.
Instead, some of the more unheralded receivers stepped into the spotlight. They had to if the Browns were going to stay in the game — running back Kareem Hunt ran into a wall of linemen nearly every time he made a carry. The Browns needed to rely on their passing game to win.
Completions, though, started to lead to touchdowns. The first two scores were to Harrison Bryant, the fourth-round rookie out of FAU who had done most of his damage thus far as a blocking body. The Bengals, however, could not contain Bryant in the passing attack. He finished second on the Browns with 56 receiving yards on four receptions.
"We always talk about keep working, even when things are bad," Bryant said. "You know to never get too high and never get too low. Going out and scoring two touchdowns in a game like that and winning at the end, it is huge. A lot of emotions. It was a great feeling."
Rashard Higgins, who had only made five catches before Sunday, was on the field for nearly every snap after Beckham exited and became Mayfield's go-to receiver. A red-carpet celebration — Higgins' staple touchdown move — wasn't needed Sunday, but the fifth-year veteran pieced together several big plays, including an incredible leaping catch 30-yard catch to move the Browns into Bengals territory on their final drive. He led all receivers with 110 receiving yards.
The final big play was made by Peoples-Jones, a sixth-round pick from Michigan. Peoples-Jones had been used almost exclusively as a punt and kick returner before Sunday. He hadn't even make his first NFL catch until the fourth quarter on a pass that came from Landry, but Mayfield turned to him first when he attempted to make a potential game-ending throw to the end zone with less than 30 seconds on the clock.
Peoples-Jones made the catch and was mobbed by teammates as the official put both hands up to signal the touchdown. Mayfield simply looked up and pointed toward the sky.
"This game gave everyone on the offense confidence that we can have faith and put trust in everybody," Mayfield said. "We always have a chance if we believe."
Stefanski certainly had faith, too. His play-calling helped Mayfield build his streak of consecutive completions after a brutal first quarter, and he even warned the Browns on Saturday in a team meeting about the possibility of a last-second play.
He knew a back-and-forth game was headed the Browns' way soon. It arrived Sunday, and Cleveland was ready for it.
"You're going to play in these games every year," Stefanski said. "In the NFL, you're going to have to come in and win games on a 2-minute drive. That has to be your mentality."
Mayfield and the Browns offense had that mentality when they stepped on the field with barely a minute left. A potential season-defining moment was ahead of them, and it certainly wasn't going to be fulfilled with a field goal.
Mayfield was darn sure about that.
"No need to settle for that," Mayfield said. "Just go do our job."