By Ed Meyer
It’s getting pretty scary now.
In the Browns’ runup to five wins in their last six games with Sunday’s 26-18 domination of the Cincinnati Bengals, there have been prolonged periods in which Baker Mayfield has played “like a 10-year veteran,” not a rookie with 13 games under his belt, retired left tackle Joe Thomas said.
The last time Mayfield took on the Bengals, on Nov. 25 in Cincinnati, he set a Browns rookie quarterback record with four touchdown passes in a 35-20 win.
But now he is reaching the realm of the spectacular.
Midway through the second quarter Sunday, leading 7-0, the Browns caught the Bengals by complete surprise with a hocus-pocus play – a Mayfield handoff to rookie wide receiver Antonio Calloway, who then pitched to wide receiver Jarvis Landry.
The middle of the pocket was so solid, Landry had the time to pump fake and throw a deep sideline pass, perfectly, to 6-foot-2 wide receiver Breshad Perriman for a 63-yard gain.
The sellout crowd erupted.
That set the stage for Mayfield’s David Copperfield throw.
After a six-yard run by rookie tailback Nick Chubb to keep the Bengals’ defense honest, the Browns were in second-and-goal at the Cincinnati 1-yard line.
On a scramble right, Mayfield kept the play alive, spotted 6-foot-7 tight end Darren Fells cutting across the end zone in tight coverage and squeezed in a perfect throw for the touchdown and a two-score lead.
The CBS-TV analyst, former NFL safety Adam Archuleta, had to watch Mayfield’s throw on replay to grasp what he had just seen the rookie pull off.
“That play,” Archuleta said, “looked exactly like Patrick Mahomes.”
The Kansas Chiefs’ young quarterback is one of the frontrunners for the league’s MVP award.
Mayfield finished the first half 14-of-19 passing, hitting six different receivers, for 104 yards and two more TDs – giving him 23 for the season.
He then notched his 24th with a 17-yard strike over the middle to wide receiver Rashard Higgins – moving to within two of the all-time NFL record for most TD passes by a rookie.
Peyton Manning had 26 in 1998 for the Colts. Russell Wilson had 26 for the Seahawks in 2012.
The Browns led 23-0 after Higgins’ score late in the third quarter, and the game was all but over at that point.
As an exclamation point while Higgins celebrated in the end zone with his teammates, Mayfield knelt down in front of the group, like he was holding a cell phone, and clicked his index finger as if he was snapping a photo.
In a game where it was a task for the CBS announcers to keep up with the superlatives, the Browns, who had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention after Saturday night’s 25-16 Tennessee Titans victory over the Redskins, swept the season series from the Bengals for the first time since 2002.
With the win, the Browns improved their record to 7-7-1 under the direction of interim coach Gregg Williams, who is looking more and more like the best man for their head coaching job, and offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens.
If the Browns beat the Ravens next Sunday in Baltimore in the 2018 finale, they will have achieved their first winning season since they went 10-6, but missed the playoffs, in 2007.
Mayfield, who was born in Austin, Texas, in 1995, was 12 years old at the time.
There were more dramatics that incited the FirstEnergy crowd, even though the Browns took a 26-3 lead on rookie Greg Joseph’s 31-yard field goal with 7:26 left on the clock.
The Bengals scored twice – their second TD capped by a 2-point play that made it an 8-point game with 2:56 to play.
Seconds later, Mayfield put away the Bengals, hitting 6-foot-4 tight end David Njoku with a short pass over the middle. Njoku, looking like a John Deere earth mover as he cut through the defense, took it 66 yards to the Cincinnati 3-yard line.
The Browns went into the victory formation and ran out the clock.
Before they did, however, the TV cameras caught Mayfield trotting in front of the Bengals’ sideline, where ex-Browns coach Hue Jackson was standing.
Mayfield looked over at Jackson as he passed him and stared at his former coach “for what felt like an eternity,” play-by-play man Spero Dedes said.
The Browns were 2-5-1 when Jackson was canned two months ago.
There was still more to like before the ice-cold Mayfield staredown.
Kitchens, showing he knows how to set up teams for the big play, had rookie tailback Nick Chubb running hard inside for four yards, then six more, right before the 66-yard catch-and-run by Njoku.
Mayfield finished 27-of-37 for 284 yards, three TDs and no interceptions, with pass completions to nine different receivers.
Chubb, closing in on a 1,000-yard season, had 19 carries for 112 yards with a long run of 22.
Perriman, the former first-round draft pick who was signed as a free agent by the Browns earlier this season, had two catches for 76 yards.
Njoku had three catches for 73 yards and a TD, Higgins six for 60 yards and a TD, Fells three for 18 yards and a TD. And if that wasn’t enough spread-the-wealth play calling, running back Duke Johnson added six catches for 54 yards.
“If he keeps this up,” Archuleta said of Mayfield’s stunning performance, “he’s going to find out what it’s like to be the Browns’ version of The Beatles.”
Mayfield is moving toward an historic record.
For the season, he has completed 287-of-444 passes for 3,349 yards, a 64.6 completion percentage, 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
His completion percentage is the second highest in team history. Only the great Hall of Famer, Otto Graham, has a higher completion percentage for a season -- 64.7 in 1953.
Chubb nearing 1,000 yards
Rookie tailback Nick Chubb, with 19 carries for 112 yards against the Bengals -- his fourth 100-yard game of the season -- broke the club rookie rushing record with 972 yards (5.3-yard average, eight touchdowns).
Trent Richardson held the record with 950 yards (3.6-yard average, 11 TDs) in 2012. Hall of Famer Jim Brown, 82, is next with 942 yards (4.7-yard average, nine TDs).
Ward suffers second concussion
Rookie cornerback Denzel Ward, the fourth overall pick of this year's draft, suffered a concussion against the Bengals and is in the NFL concussion protocol for the second time since Dec. 2.
He left the game with 5:14 to play after hitting Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah, knocking him out of bounds. Uzomah, a 2015 fifth-round draft pick from Auburn, is 6-foot-6, 271 pounds.
Ward is listed by the Browns at 5-11, 190 pounds.
Interim coach Gregg Williams said Monday that he is not sure if Ward will be able to play in Baltimore.
"Last night when I was leaving, he was much better this time around," Williams said in a media conference call, "but it is an important part of taking a look at how everything goes."
Ward needs to stay lower in contact, Williams said. "You have to understand who you are playing against. You can't be up that high anymore on those kinds of people," he said.
Game time change
The finale in Baltimore Sunday has been changed by the league, for television scheduling, from 1 p.m to 4:25 p.m. The game will be televised on CBS.
The Ravens (9-6) need to beat the Browns (7-7-1) to clinch the AFC North.
If the Browns win and the Steelers (8-6-1) beat Cincinnati, the Steelers will win the division and the Ravens will be eliminated.