CLEVELAND — Marty Schottenheimer and Sam Wyche would be proud. Bernie Kosar and Boomer Esiason must be beaming.
Though this year's "Battle of Ohio" games were not for divisional superiority, both were high-scoring nail-biters that came down to the very end. Fortunately for Browns fans, both ended in their favor.
Sunday's 37-34 Browns win over the Bengals had five go-ahead touchdown passes in the fourth quarter alone, the first time that has ever happened in the long history of the NFL. Five combined passing touchdowns in ANY quarter is rare; five go-ahead touchdown passes in the final quarter may never happen again.
You’ll likely not watch a more exciting game this season. After two decades of rather meaningless and dull football, the "Battle of Ohio" appears to be headed for a very drastic change of direction. Both teams have young Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks: Joe Burrow has the poise of a seasoned veteran with the arm and football IQ to match, while Baker Mayfield has a fire that burns outside of his body at times with a growing knack of making the big throw in the big moment.
After starting the game 0-for-5, including his first pass of the game being intercepted, Baker literally threw a perfect game. His first completion didn’t happen until there was nearly 5 minutes gone in the second quarter, but he go on to complete his next 21 straight passes to smash the former team record held by Kosar and Kelly Holcomb (16). His only incompletion after the rough start was a spike to stop the clock before his dart to Donovan Peoples-Jones with 11 seconds to play for the game-winning score.
Joe Burrow was simply phenomenal, completing 35 of his 47 passes for 406 yards and three touchdowns. Yet Mayfield stole the show, finishing 22-for-28 for 297 yards and a career-high five scores. The mark of a great quarterback is being able to shake off a bad pass or a bad start to be clutch when the game hangs in the balance, and that’s exactly what Mayfield did in Cincinnati.
Let’s face it, both quarterbacks were able to be so good because the defenses they were playing against will never be mistaken as top flight units. The Bengals came into the Week 7 tilt ranked 17th in points per game allowed, while the Browns came in ranked 30th. Both allowed more than their averages and will likely fall in those rankings, but at least for now it appears both offenses are entertaining and electric.
Trying to figure out where this Browns team stands in the forest of NFL trees is a bit confusing: Their two losses came on the road against divisional leading Pittsburgh 38-7 and the second place Ravens 38-6. An argument can’t be made for Cleveland being on par with either AFC North juggernaut, yet they are currently firmly in possession of the AFC’s second wildcard.
At 5-2, the Browns stand just one win away from their entire 2019 win total, and their remaining schedule is among the league's easiest: Just three of their remaining nine games are against teams with a winning record. They will likely be big underdogs against the Titans, Steelers. and Ravens, but the combined record of their six remaining opponents is just 8-32-1. The 3-3 Raiders are next, and that should be an interesting game. If they can hold serve in five of those 6 games the Browns could be looking at 10 wins and a likely playoff spot, no small feat considering how weak the injury-riddled defense has been.
Counting wins before they happen can be very dangerous. Regardless, all fans really expect year to year is improvement, making sure the compass is heading in the right direction. So far, this team is winning that battle, but there is clearly work to be done.
The defense must make strides; the Bengals didn’t punt once in Sunday's game. The injuries are now beginning to mount on offense as well, but the depth there has made the difference. Having Kareem Hunt to carry the load in Nick Chubb's absence has been huge, and with Odell Beckham Jr. now out for the season, the re-emergence of Rashard Higgins will be just as critical. And is there a team in the NFL with as much talent at Tight End?
2020 has been a horrible year in just about every metric imaginable. Stands to reason the Browns would stand up big and keep all of us on our toes.
It's been a while: The Browns' 5-2 start is their best start since opening 6-1 in 1994, the last year they won a playoff game.
Mayfield's magic numbers: When Baker Mayfield has a quarterback rating of at least 100, the Browns are 12-1 in his career. When he completes at least 69% of his passes, they are 9-2. His QB rating in Sunday's win was 135.6, with a completion percentage of 78%.
Baker climbs the record books: With 64 career touchdown passes. Mayfield is now just four shy of passing Otto Graham for the most a Brown has ever had in the first three years of a career. Graham also holds the all-time franchise record with 174.
Takeaways continue: With an interception and fumble recovery, the Browns' 14 takeaways lead the NFL. They won the turnover differential with a +1 yesterday and are 5-0 this season when they’ve won the turnover battle.
Myles ahead: With 2 more sacks vs the Bengals, Myles Garrett's nine sacks are tops in the league. With 39.5 sacks thru his first 44 games, only three players have recorded more in NFL history to begin their careers. Garrett has now recorded a sack in six straight games, a new Browns record and the longest active sack streak in the NFL. He also now has four strip sacks, again putting him at the top.
Warded off: Denzel Ward continues to be one of the games best pass defenders: He had a pair of break-ups in the end zone and his three passes defended gives him 11 for the season, which is tied for the most in the NFL.
On the Hunt: With another receiving touchdown, Kareem Hunt now has four on the season, the most by any running back so far. Since Hunt joined the Browns in 2019 after serving a suspension, the team is 7-1 when he scores at least one TD.