The Browns were on the edge of another “Thursday Night Football” nailbiter early in the fourth quarter against the Bengals.
Baker Mayfield threw an interception in what should have been closing time, rookie Joe Burrow led a touchdown drive in response and Cleveland led by only five points with 5:27 remaining. Given the amount of pressure on Mayfield and the Browns after a Week 1 dud against the Ravens, it was easy to see this going the wrong way.
Instead, the strength of first-year coach Kevin Stefanski’s scheme — the core of what Cleveland needs to be for the remainder of the 2020 season — showed up when it mattered most in a 35-30 victory.
On the ensuing drive, running back Nick Chubb ripped off two runs for 30 yards. Kareem Hunt took the next four runs for 45 yards, including the game-clinching 1-yard TD. Six plays, 75 yards, all on the ground. Stefanski’s double-tight heavy scheme gave Mayfield the help he needed in crunch time.
Chubb (22 carries, 124 yards, two touchdowns rushing) and Hunt (10 carries, 86 yards, one TD) delivered as arguably the best 1-2 backfield combination in the NFL. That is the strength of the offense and a throwback to the Earnest Byner-Kevin Mack days. Byner and Mack each went for more than 1,000 yards in 1985 — a year in which the Browns went 8-8 under second-year coach Marty Schottenheimer. Chubb and Hunt have the potential to do the same in this offense.
The 2020 squad needs to lean on that running game as Mayfield (16-of-23 passing, 219 yards, two TDs, one INT) continues to get more comfortable with his third coach in three seasons.
This is Cleveland’s identity in 2020 — at least it has to be. The first two weeks hit both ends of the spectrum and offered a look at what the Browns will be this season. It looks like an 8-8 team, but the chance to be better than .500 hinges on sticking to that identity.
Mayfield did his part, too, especially in the first half. He hit 11 of 14 passes for 167 yards and a pair of TDs in the first 30 minutes, including a 43-yard shot to Odell Beckham Jr. for a score. Mayfield threw just nine passes in the second half, and the last pass was the interception, which came from outside the red zone.
Cleveland finished with 219 rushing yards and 216 passing yards. It doesn’t get much more balanced than that.
That was good enough to offset Burrow, who finished 37 of 61 for 316 yards and three TDs. This won’t be the last shootout between Mayfield and Burrow, but there was more pressure on the Browns to win this game given last year’s 6-10 season.
An 0-2 start would have led to an incredibly uncomfortable week and change leading up to Week 3. This wasn’t quite as dramatic as Mayfield’s entrance on “TNF” in 2017 against the Jets or the full-fledged meltdown that led to Myles Garrett’s season-ending suspension on “TNF” against the Steelers last year. It was a victory against a division rival that evened out the first two weeks and set the tone for what the Browns should be in the AFC race.
When the running game is clicking and Mayfield is dealing, they have playoff potential against a schedule that isn’t as daunting as last season’s slate. Of course, that’s going to depend on whether the defense improves after giving up 34 points per game in the first two weeks.
A look at the upcoming opponents suggests they should be able to continue learning under Stefanski. Washington visits Cleveland in Week 3, and then Mayfield — an Austin native — gets his first crack at Dallas in Week 4. The Colts visit in Week 5.
There is no reason why the Browns should not have a winning record when they visit Pittsburgh in Week 6 — which is their next chance to prove they belong in the top half of the AFC North and in the playoff race.
The offense proved it can beat up on a weak defense and a team that is in rebuilding mode. It will do that a few more times this season, too.
Eventually, it will need to do it against a good team.