By Ed Meyer
Everyone was wrong.
Sunday’s nationally televised regular season finale matching the underdog Browns against the Ravens in Baltimore was not an NFL playoff game.
It was more like Game 7 of the NBA Finals, or Game 7 of the Stanley Cup playoffs – the action so furious from possession to possession by both teams, that it nearly took your breath away.
In the end, the Ravens prevailed, 26-24, surviving a last-ditch comeback by the Browns and their record-setting rookie quarterback, Baker Mayfield, to advance to the playoffs as the champions of the AFC North with a 10-6 record.
The Browns, who finished 7-8-1 and 5-3 under interim coach Gregg Williams, saw their bid for their first winning season since 2007 come down to the final seconds after somehow managing to overcome 296 yards rushing by the Ravens.
On fourth-and-10 at the Baltimore 39-yard line, after the Browns passed up a chance at what would have been a 56-yard, go-ahead field goal attempt, the game was hanging in the balance as CBS play-by-play man Jim Nantz said: “The whole NFL is watching.”
The Ravens showed blitz with a stacked front.
Mayfield came under pressure from his left side, backpedaled and tried to go over the middle to veteran running back Duke Johnson.
Ravens inside linebacker C.J. Mosely was up at the line in blitz formation as Mayfield threw. But at the last second, Mosely backed off, batted the pass upward at the line of scrimmage and intercepted at the Baltimore 39-yard line to end the Cleveland threat with 1:02 to play.
Indeed, the drama of the game was so intense, CBS camera crews showed what was happening inside Heinz Field in Pittsburgh in the final moments – the Steelers needing the Browns to win to make the playoffs.
Nantz said it looked like the entire stadium was still packed, pulling for the Browns, of all things, even though the Steelers, who wound up missing the playoffs with a 9-6-1 mark, had already defeated the Bengals.
Rough first half
Mayfield threw two interceptions in the first half, as the Ravens pounded away relentlessly with their triple-threat running attack of rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson and running backs Kenneth Dixon and Gus Edwards.
The trio combined for 176 yards rushing at halftime, when Jackson alone had nine carries for 64 yards and two touchdowns, and the Ravens led 20-7, seemingly with the game under complete control.
Game analyst Tony Romo, the former Cowboys quarterback, said it looked like the game was over at that point if the Browns were not going to be able to “slow the run down.”
Mayfield would not let it happen.
On the Browns’ first possession of the third quarter, rookie wide receiver Antonio Calloway quieted the crowd with a 37-yard punt return just inside Baltimore territory.
In one of the craftiest plays you’ll ever see, Mayfield stood back in a well-protected pocket, caught the snap head high, then intentionally bobbled it as he faked an inside handoff to a receiver in motion.
The Ravens, who came in with the No. 1 defense in the league, looked befuddled at the rookie’s daring as wide receiver Jarvis Landry broke free deep in the secondary, hauling in Mayfield’s perfect throw for a 48-yard TD that cut the deficit to 20-14.
If the Browns keep offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens – multiple media reports say his job is secure, maybe even as a candidate for the head coaching job – who knows what we’ll see from Mayfield in 2019 and beyond?
Historic No. 27
On Landry’s long TD catch, Mayfield tied the all-time NFL record for most TD passes by a rookie quarterback with 26, joining Peyton Manning of the Colts (who did it in 1998) and Russell Wilson of the Seahawks (2012).
The record fell when it counted most – with a little over two minutes to play as Mayfield capped a nine-play, 75-yard drive, stunning the Baltimore crowd by making it a two-point game.
On the historic No. 27, Kitchens called a fake screen pass to wide receiver Rashard Higgins, who drew several defenders on the right side of the defense. Calloway, with perfect timing, cut inside on a slant and caught Mayfield’s 1-yard strike for the touchdown.
The pass had to be zipped in there in traffic, and Mayfield pulled it off with the Ravens only clinging to their playoff hopes at that point.
With virtually no running attack – rookie tailback Nick Chubb was held to nine carries for 24 yards – Mayfield finished the night 23-of-42 for 376 yards, three TDs and three interceptions. In two games against the league’s fourth-ranked pass defense, he amassed 718 yards passing.
Quick whistle heartbreaker
Despite the Ravens’ early domination – their first four drives ended in scores – the Browns might have won if not for an officiating decision inside the two-minute warning in the first half.
On third-and-goal at the Cleveland 1, Jackson tried to jump over a tight formation on a quarterback sneak that was initially ruled a TD on the field. But a review occurred, and replays showed conclusively that he was inches short.
As Jackson jumped with the ball clutched in both hands, he drew it back, no doubt thinking he had broken the plane, and Browns defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, 6-foot-3, 305 pounds, punched the ball and knocked it out of Jackson’s grasp.
The football popped backward, Browns strong safety Jabrill Pepper recovered and had all green in front of him on what appeared to be a 90-yard-plus TD jaunt.
But the officials blew a quick whistle on Peppers’ recovery, stopping him with no one near him, and the play was ruled dead.
Nantz on the quick whistle: "What's the big hurry?"
Retired NFL official Gene Steratore, who works for CBS in New York as a rules analyst, didn't like the call, either, and noted the angst of the Browns' fans at other calls that have gone against them this season.
"It is a fair question by the Cleveland fans," Steratore said. "Without a whistle, we've got a 99-yard TD."
The Browns took over at the 6-yard line, where the ball was spotted after Peppers scooped it up and started running.
On the first play, Mayfield threw deep over the middle to a wide-open Jarvis Landry, but as Landry turned his head toward the flight of the ball, trying to make an over-the-shoulder catch, it struck him in the facemask and fell incomplete.
“That was a heartbreaker right there,” Romo said.
It would epitomize a heart-pounding football game from beginning to end.
In just 13 starts this season, Mayfield set the all-time NFL rookie record for quarterbacks with 27 TD passes, breaking the mark held jointly by Peyton Manning (from 20 years ago) and Russell Wilson (in 2012). Peyton and Wilson had a full season of starts to reach 26.
Mayfield also finished sixth all-time in passing yards by a rookie quarterback with 3,725 -- a Browns rookie record.
Rookie tailback Nick Chubb, who needed 28 yards rushing to reach 1,000 for the season, got it in the first half, but lost yardage as the game wore on. He finished the season with a Browns rookie record 997 yards and tied for the second-most touchdowns with 10.