CLEVELAND — The formula has worked for the Cleveland Browns so far. Take a nice lead in the first half. Take a nap in the second half. Fill fans with anxiety. Hold on for the way-too-close-for-comfort win.
The 1979 version of the Kardiac Kids made a habit of coming from behind late in games with heart-stopping heroics. The 2020 version has flipped the script as the Browns have made a habit of building first half leads, in some cases very comfortable ones, only to see them shrink to margins that make fans increasingly uncomfortable as the games play out.
Sunday’s 41-35 win against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville felt like a redo of the Cowboys game back in October. In Dallas, the Browns built a 41-14 lead before being outscored 24-8 in the final quarter to hold on for the 49-38 win. That’s exactly why I had a hard time believing the game was over when the Browns scored a franchise record 38 first half points to take an unthinkable 38-7 lead to the half.
Inexplicably, from the second the Browns came back on to the field, it was as if the teams had switched uniforms at halftime. The Titans needed just three plays to go 75 yards with just more than a minute to score their first touchdown of the second half. The Browns began their next possession with a holding penalty on the first play to set up a 1st and 20. That penalty was one of 13 the Browns committed on the day, costing them 92 yards.
After a quick three and out, the Titans needed just six plays to go 61 yards for their second touchdown of the third quarter. In the span of nine plays and 3:10 of elapsed game time, the Titans offense shredded the Browns defense for 136 yards and 14 points. What happened at halftime that turned the Browns into the Titans and vice versa? That record-setting Browns offense that put up 38 first half points managed just a field goal in the entire second half. The Browns defense that played so well, so tough, so smart in the first half, was torched for 28 second half points. How? Why? Questions for Kevin Stefanski for sure.
Most likely it’s a product of taking their foot off the gas. The aggressiveness was gone. The edge wasn’t there. Penalties at the worst possible time kept drives alive for the Titans and kept the Browns defense on the field. The numbers tell a very defining tale. The Browns are a first half team. On the season, the Browns have outscored their opponents 180-135 in the first half. The second half is almost an exact flip with the Browns being outscored 186-123. The Browns have outscored their opponents in only two of 12 second halves this season. What’s worse, the 9-3 Browns are actually being outscored on the season 306-321. That’s almost impossible for a team that has six more wins than losses. For comparison, the 8-4 Dolphins have outscored their opponents 303-212. Troubling. But that’s all for another day, because the Cleveland Browns aren’t 3-9 or 0-12, they are 9-3, and those are the only digits that matter with four games to play in the regular season of this irregular year of 2020.
Somehow the Browns have to learn to find a way to play a full 60 minutes. Figure out how to run through the tape and finish. I have no doubt they can. In the course of 12 short games they’ve learned how to win close. No small task. They’ve learned how to make huge plays with games in the balance. At times they have looked as good as anyone in the NFL. They’re even starting to carry themselves like winners. Kevin Stefanski has essentially washed the stink of two decades of losing off this team in a matter of months. There has been adversity to be sure. Odell Beckham Jr. tearing his ACL. Nick Chubb missing a month. Myles Garrett and several others missing time due to COVID. Denzel Ward and Austin Hooper and on and on. Yet here the Browns are at 9-2 in a solid inside lane for one of the AFC’s four wildcard berths. But as Stefanski has smartly said all season, they’re just trying to go 1-0.
Next up, a shot of revenge against the division rival Baltimore Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium on Monday Night Football. I don’t care how they get it. Hell, I’d take a 1-0 win if we could get it. I don’t care if they get outplayed in every facet of the game, but win by one. A win Monday night would put the Browns at 10-3, and all but guarantee them a playoff spot.
I got goosebumps just typing that. For real.
DO YOU KNOW THE YEAR? The Shawshank Redemption and Forrest Gump were box office hits. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was 3834. Today it’s 30,221. Gas was $1.09 per gallon. Ice skater Tonya Harding had rival Nancy Kerrigan whacked in the shin with a crow bar. The year was 1994. It was also the last time the Browns started a season 9-3.
CLEAN SWEEP: With the win against the Titans, the Browns finished a perfect 4-0 against the AFC South this season. That’s the first time in team history the Browns have accomplished that.
ROAD WARRIORS: The Browns improved to 4-2 on the road. That’s the best six game road start for the Browns since they opened 5-1 away from Municipal Stadium in 1969.
GOOD SIGNS: The Browns have a very defined blueprint for victory. They are 8-0 this season when they don’t lose the turnover battle. They are 9-0 this season when Hunt and/or Chubb scores a TD.
TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF, NOT TURNING IT OVER: Despite his late fumble, Baker Mayfield has now gone his last five games without throwing an interception. Three of those games were played in miserable weather conditions. Mayfield on the season now has 21 TD’s to just 7 INT's. Throughout the last three games, he has 10 TD’s with 0 INT’s. Mayfield completed 75.8% of his passes vs. the Titans. His 25 completions and 334 passing yards are both season highs. With his four passing TDs vs. Titans, Mayfield has 70 for his career, trailing only Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck for the most passing TDs through the first three seasons for an overall No. 1 pick. With six games to play, he is 16 TDs behind Luck’s record.
MAYFIELD ON THE MIC: Mayfield’s postgame comments were notably funny. On what is different about him now as opposed to a month ago or last year: “Whenever I am about to do something, I think, ‘Would an idiot do that?’ And if they would, then I don’t do that.” On his toe-tap to stay in bounds on his reception and how much he works on that: “Every morning, I wake up and toe-tap and get out of bed before I get into the bathroom. Before I brush my teeth, I toe-tap.” And how about that catch!
GARRETT’S BACK! Myles Garrett notched another sack in his return from missing two games with the coronavirus. That gives him 10.5 sacks on the season which is third in the NFL. Garrett is now second on the list for most sacks by an overall No. 1 pick through his first four seasons with 41 sacks trailing only Bruce Smith (44.5).