By Ed Meyer
No one has heard anything like this about the Browns in a long time.
After a stunning performance by rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield Sunday afternoon, the Browns led the Cincinnati Bengals 28-0 with 2:30 left before halftime.
“This score,” CBS-TV play-by-play announcer Kevin Harlan said, hardly able to contain himself, “will rock people around the NFL.”
Think about what it must have done to Hue Jackson, the deposed Browns head coach who was on the Cincinnati sideline as a defensive assistant, chewing gum like a madman as the cameras caught him pacing amid the Browns’ onslaught.
This was a team that had been ravaged on network game coverage during the day, and mercilessly joked about by comedians on the late-night shows, for most of the decade.
Not any more.
Final: Browns 35, Bengals 20.
It was a lethal combination of big play after big play by Mayfield – the Bengals had no answers in stopping him-- and his young corps of receivers.
After the Browns recovered a center snap that sailed wildly over the head of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton at the outset of the third quarter – no doubt shell shocked at that point -- Mayfield capitalized on the turnover with a 4-yard scoring pass to veteran tight end Darren Fells.
The Browns were up 35-7, the game was all but over, and so was their 25-game road losing streak, one short of the ignominious record held by the Detroit Lions.
At that point in the action, Mayfield was 18-of-21 passing for 249 yards and four TD passes. The rookie from Oklahoma looked a lot like his boyhood idol, Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, who is being widely talked about as this season’s MVP.
Even former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, who regularly fawns over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, took notice in the halftime show.
“Does Baker Mayfield know he’s a rookie?” Simms asked.
Of all the plays that Mayfield and his receivers made, the TD pass that put the Browns up 35-7 was a thing of beauty in its precise execution.
Under great protection by his offensive line, Mayfield patiently shuffled right, knowing that his tight end was working his pattern across the back of the end zone, and threw a perfect, high spiral to the 6-foot-7 Fells for the score.
Since the Oct. 29 double firing of Jackson and the team’s ex-offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the Browns suddenly look like a playoff-contending team under interim head coach Greg Williams and the new offensive coordinator, Freddie Kitchens.
In three games with Kitchens calling the plays, Mayfield has thrown nine touchdown passes with one interception, the team has put together back-to-back victories for the first time since 2014, and ended the Bengals seven-game win streak in their divisional matchups.
Mayfield finished the game 19-of-26 passing for 258 yards, four TD passes, no interceptions, no turnovers and no sacks.
With five games to play, the Browns are 4-6-1 (2-1-1 in the division) and the Benglas, now staggering with a three-game losing streak, are 5-6.
There was a strong message delivered by the Browns on their opening drive.
If Jackson was brought in to improve Cincinnati’s woeful defense, ranked last in the league in yards allowed per game (449.4) going in, it didn’t work.
Mayfield, off play action on his first snap, connected with Chubb on a textbook screen pass that Chubb took 23 yards through the right side of the Bengals’ defense. Then, out of a three-back set and another play fake, Mayfield connected with Duke Johnson over the middle for another 23 yards.
Just like in their last game, a 28-16 win over Atlanta, Mayfield and the Browns were hot out of the blocks, ending a long drive with Chubb’s 1-yard inside smash behind pulling left guard Joel Bitonio.
Mayfield was 6-of-6 passing on the drive for 71 yards, completing passes to five different receivers.
The Browns then kept their momentum with what was for them, a rare special teams gem. Myles Garrett, the first player taken in the 2017 draft, brush-blocked Randy Bullock’s 54-yard field goal attempt, and Mayfield continued his hot streak.
Plays were executed with stunning quickness and accuracy, all over the field, as the Browns took a 14-0 lead on Mayfield’s 13-yard fastball to rookie wide receiver Antonio Calloway in the back-left corner of the end zone.
With 1:37 left in the first quarter, Mayfield was 9-of-10 passing for 122 yards and one touchdown, hitting seven different receivers.
And his superlative numbers kept mounting, in such rapid fashion that the CBS-TV statistical people could barely keep up with their graphics.
Mayfield, 23, now has thrown multiple-touchdown passes in five consecutive games, one short of the club record held by one of the team’s past champions, Frank Ryan, who did it twice in the 1960s.
Surviving a scare
Andy Dalton, the Bengals’ veteran QB, had the Browns’ number, big time, going into the game. His record all-time against the Browns was 11-3, and he was on a streak of 15 touchdown passes with zero interceptions.
But Dalton didn’t survive the game. While chasing down a terrible center snap from the shotgun early in the second half, Dalton went down and out with an apparently serious injury to his throwing hand in the scramble for the football.
The Bengals were down by 28 points.
Behind three-year veteran backup Jeff Driskel, 6-foot-4, 233 pounds, from Louisiana Tech, the Bengals put some scare into the Browns with a hurry-up offense and two consecutive scoring drives. But after the second, the Bengals’ embattled kicker, Bullock, banged his extra point attempt off the left upright.
It was a mistake from which Cincinnati did not recover.
Take that, Hue Jackson?
This play is sure to be talked about for awhile.
With the Browns up 21-0 and some nine minutes left in the second quarter, safety Damarious Randall, after pressure on Dalton from middle linebacker Joe Schobert, made his third interception of the season along the left sideline.
Hue Jackson was standing nearby in his headset.
After Randall crossed the boundary line, he handed the football to Jackson. The ex-Browns coach took it in, patted Randall on the left shoulder pad, then dropped the ball in the bench area.
We might never know if it was Randall saying, “Take that.”