Monday night’s game between the Ravens and Browns was very weird and very fun and ended in the expected way, with Cleveland heartbreak. But before Justin Tucker’s winning kick sailed through the uprights and before Jarvis Landry bumbled into a safety to let the Ravens cover, the Browns repeatedly did something that still feels pretty unreal: They strung together competent, gutsy drives in high-leverage situations that put themselves in position to win a prime-time game against a fellow playoff-picture team. Regardless of the way it turned out in the end, the Browns kept pace with the Baltimore offense and did not wither down the stretch, scoring TDs on each of their last three drives and on four of five possessions in the second half. Even though they did not win, they played great football. The Cleveland Browns!
That may sound a bit condescending, but I’m absolutely not grading on a curve here. About three-fourths of the way through the game, it became apparent to anyone watching that these Browns were more than capable of matching the reigning MVP and Coach of the Year blow for blow. Down 34-20 late in the third and in danger of letting their chances slip away, Baker Mayfield and his orange-and-brown boys bounced back from a crushing interception to travel 75 yards to the end zone in 12 plays. Kevin Stefanski enabled this successful outcome by getting brave in three—three!—different situations, and he saw his courage pay off on all three occasions.
Facing fourth-and-4 at their own 46, with still an entire quarter left to play, Mayfield executed a flawless slant with Landry to pick up 12. A handful of snaps later, facing another fourth-and-4 on the Baltimore 21, the scrambling Oklahoma kid took advantage of a Marcus Peters injury to find Rashard Higgins wide open beyond the goal line, cutting the deficit to eight. Stefanski again made the correct call and went for two, and fortune smiled upon him by gifting Donovan Peoples-Jones a deflection off Kareem Hunt and directly into his hands.
Here are the three aggressive play-calls:
Stefanski explicitly said in the post game that he and his now 9-4 team were not in the mood to think about moral victories, and despite the 493 yards of total offense, it’s fair to look at Mayfield’s big turnover and kicker Cody Parkey’s miscues and the way the defense failed to contain Lamar as areas for improvement. But this was undeniably a measuring stick game for the Browns, and even if the final score still didn’t have them on top, the fact that this group has risen from losing to the Ravens 38-6 in the first game of the year to just missing out in the best game of the year against the same opponent in Week 14 is an indication that they are a playoff team who deserve to be taken seriously.
“They just had the chance to keep growing as a football team,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said last night. “That’s a really, really good football team with a lot of heart.”
So while it might be tempting to note the frustrating similarities between the 2020 Browns losing to the Ravens on Monday night because of a winning field goal and the 2015 Browns dropping to 2-9 when the Ravens returned a blocked field goal for a last-second touchdown, there’s nothing to connect them besides the colors of the uniforms and the location of the stadium. The addition to the loss column might have been disappointing and familiar for Cleveland fans, but everything else looks better than ever.