CLEVELAND — Don’t rub your eyes. It’s not a misprint. The Cleveland Browns really are 4-1.
But even with Sunday’s 32-23 win over the Indianapolis Colts at FirstEnergy Stadium, the reality is they still play in the AFC North, and 4-1 is only good enough for 3rd place. If they played in the NFC East, they’d be figuring out their magic number, as the Browns have as many wins as the entire NFC East combined. Unfortunately, they don’t, so they’ll need to continue to find ways to win football games.
This time around, the formula was an explosive passing attack in the first half followed by a big play defense in the second half, then hold on again until time expires. Putting together four quarters of complete football hasn’t yet happened for this year's Browns team, but they’re 4-1 because when a big play has been needed in each victory someone stepped up and made it. That’s what good teams do.
Against the Colts it was safety Ronnie Harrison, who was starting in place of the injured Karl Joseph. Harrison jumped a route stepping in front of a Philip Rivers pass before taking it 47 yards for a pick-six. The big play gave the Browns a 27-10 lead and it continued a pattern of Cleveland taking away the football from opponents at a pace that leads all teams in the NFL.
The Browns lead the league in takeaways (12) as well as turnover differential (+6), and that more than anything else is the reason the Browns are 4-1.
Somehow this team has to find a way to play four complete quarters on offense. Baker Mayfield looked like a Pro Bowl quarterback in the first half, making big throws on the move, completing critical third down passes, and spreading the ball around to seven different pass catchers as the Browns built a 20-10 halftime lead. Cleveland's drive chart in the first half was nearly flawless, a head coaches dream:
- 10 plays, 69 yards, field goal
- 14 plays, 81 yards, touchdown
- 9 plays, 75 yards, touchdown
- 12 plays, 64 yards, field goal
- They were a perfect 4 for 4 running 45 offensive plays to the Colts 19
But that dynamic, pass rich offense took the second half off. In many ways, this game was very similar to last week's win at Dallas, just with fewer fireworks.
The Browns' drive chart in the second half tells a much different story. Before the Cleveland offense ever took the field in the second half. each team scored a touchdown: The Browns' pick-six was followed by a Colts 101-yard kickoff return for a score, and just like that the 17 point lead was back down to 10.
That’s when the Browns offense decided to hibernate. Here’s the sum of the Browns offensive work in the second half
- 5 plays, interception
- 8 plays, punt
- 3 plays, punt
- 6 plays, interception
- 8 plays, field goal
- 28 total plays, 7 first downs, 104 total yards
How is it even possible the same offense that has produced 51 first half points over its last two games has managed to score just 20 second half points in that same two-game span? Remember, the Browns aren’t in the NFC East; they’re in the AFC North. You won’t beat the Steelers doing that, and you definitely won’t beat the Ravens that way.
As good as Kevin Stefanski’s offense has been, it has to be better and more consistent. It has to be more complete. The predictable play calling after they take the lead needs to be more Andy Reid-like. Keep them guessing. If I’m able to accurately predict each play at a better than 80% clip from my living room, I’m guessing defensive coordinators can do even better.
Once you figure out what the opponent is doing, you’re more than halfway to winning the battle. Uncharacteristic third down drops by Jarvis Landry killed a pair of those drives, and typically that won’t happen. But now that the Browns have found themselves in the unusual position of building big leads, they need to learn how to keep their foot on the gas and make sure those big leads don’t disappear.
So far, the defense has swooped in to make big plays to save the day, but as a very smart head coach once told me, turnovers can be fool’s gold. They can hide a lot of warts, but you can't always rely on them.
This team has the potential to be very good. They currently sit just two wins shy of last year's win total, and that changes everything.
Fan expectations go up with each win. Mistakes become magnified. Each play has the potential to be the reason why you win or why you lose. They’re too valuable to waste a single one. Each game holds huge implications towards making the playoffs.
This isn’t 2017 anymore, thank goodness.
Way too long: The last time the Browns started 4-1 was 1994. They were led by Bill Belichick at head coach and Nick Saban at defensive coordinator, arguably the greatest head coaches in the history of the NFL and college football. Since that time, Belichick has lead the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl victories while Saban has won six national titles.
Big-play defense: The Browns defense has recorded at least one takeaway in 12 straight games. That’s the second-longest active streak in the NFL.
Rolling 30s: The Browns have scored 30 or more points in four straight games. That hasn’t happened since 1968. They are tied with the Green Bay Packers with the longest active streak of scoring 30 or more points, and that’s pretty good company.
The Stefanski factor: Sunday’s win against the Colts saw the Browns committee just two penalties. That’s the fewest penalties by a Browns team since 2017. Cleveland has been penalized just 29 times through five games, compared to 46 penalties through the first five games last season.
Myles ahead: Myles Garrett was again a defensive force for the Browns, forcing pressure that led to an interception and another that caused a safety. With a sack versus the Colts, Garrett now has 36.5 sacks in his first 42 NFL games, passing Von Miller for the fifth-most sacks through any player's first 42 contests.