The season is winding down and the playoff picture is coming into focus. Week 16 saw more postseason tickets punched and the Kansas City Chiefs clinching the best record in the league.
More than once during his three-year Browns career, quarterback Baker Mayfield has proclaimed, “Mama didn’t raise no wuss.”
But Mama never envisioned this.
The leadership of Mayfield, running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, defensive end Myles Garrett and first-year coach Kevin Stefanski were challenged like never before in Sunday’s 23-16 loss to the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium.
Mayfield has always been their Pied Piper, the one who sets the tone, the one who has kept their spirits and swagger alive, especially during this unprecedented, pandemic-altered season.
Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt (27) recovers a fumble by quarterback Baker Mayfield during the second half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in East Rutherford, N.J. The ruling on the field resulted in a turnover on downs ending the drive. (AP Photo/Corey Sipkin) (Photo: Corey Sipkin, AP)
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So it seemed fitting that with a playoff berth there for the taking and the Browns facing fourth-and-inches from the Jets 16 with 1:25 to go, Stefanski called a Mayfield sneak. Before the drive, Mayfield sat on the Browns’ bench, his head down, a mask on, seemingly composing himself for the final three minutes.
Then Mama’s worst fears came to life. Mayfield tried to burrow through the line and fumbled, and Hunt recovered shy of the marker with 1:18 remaining, turning the ball over on downs.
“I failed this team. I put the ball on the ground three times,” Mayfield said afterward during a postgame Zoom he cut short.
Mayfield took the blame as a COVID-19 crisis and injuries and illness on the offensive line doomed the Browns (10-5) as they failed to clinch their first playoff bid since 2002 against the Jets (2-13). That may be a sign of growth for their unquestioned leader, even if he had company in culpability.
Vastly undermanned, the Browns were nowhere near as composed, as resilient, as tough as they had been through the first 14 games.
Tight ends Harrison Bryand and Austin Hooper caught only 10 of the 22 passes thrown their way. Chubb finished with 28 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown, Hunt 11 yards on four attempts and a score, although they contributed 38 and 41 yards receiving, respectively. Mayfield completed 28 of 53 passes for 285 yards and a 68.5 rating, with many of his throws sailing high or too low for his inexperienced receivers.
“I got outcoached. We got outplayed. We did the things you can’t do. We were minus-two in the turnover battle — you can’t do that,” Stefanski said. “Penalties. Drops. Not good. That is going to get you beat, and it did so credit to the Jets.”
On Saturday, middle linebacker B.J. Goodson was declared out after testing positive for the virus and receivers Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, KhaDarel Hodge and rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones were deemed high-risk close contacts, along with rookie linebacker Jacob Phillips.
The Browns were already missing starting right guard Wyatt Teller (ankle) and valuable offensive line swingman Chris Hubbard (slated for knee surgery). Left tackle Jedrick Wills was ruled out Sunday morning with an illness.
The Browns started the game in a fog, falling behind 13-3 at halftime and 20-3 early in the third quarter, looked nothing like themselves.
Then the Browns summoned their mojo. But they didn’t have enough time or enough talent, losing linebackers Tae Davis and Sione Takitaki to injury during the game.
Behind by 17 in the third quarter, the Browns went to the hurry-up offense, and Mayfield, Chubb and Hunt found some rhythm, cutting the deficit to 20-16 with 12:38 remaining even as kicker Cody Parkey hit the upright for the second consecutive week. Blitzing safety Andrew Sendejo stopped receiver Braxton Berrios for no gain on a catch with 7:36 left for the first of consecutive stops by the Browns’ defense.
But Jets’ linebacker Tarell Basham’s strip-sack forced what would be the second of three Mayfield fumbles and defensive lineman John Franklin-Meyers recovered at the Browns 17 with 3:14 remaining. That set up a 34-yard field goal for a 23-16 Jets lead.
The Browns believed new General Manager Andrew Berry had built a much deeper team this season, despite season-ending injuries suffered by star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and rookie safety Grant Delpit. But the Browns were stretched too thin, the replacements too unsure, the regulars too rattled. A team that hadn’t blinked since April melted down in the heat of the moment.
“Whatever we need to do to win, we’re capable of doing that. … We’ve had to win games every single different way,” Mayfield told Phil Simms of CBS for an interview for “The NFL Today.”
With the wild turn of events on Saturday and Sunday morning, the Browns met their match in terms of resilience and resourcefulness.
COVID complications are not unprecedented in the NFL this season, but two other teams faced with similar circumstances were soundly defeated.
The Denver Broncos started practice squad rookie receiver Kendall Hinton at quarterback in a 31-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 29 after the Broncos’ three quarterbacks were deemed high-risk close contacts.
On Saturday, the Detroit Lions had interim coach Darrell Bevell sidelined due to COVID protocols, along with several assistants. The Lions, who lost quarterback Matthew Stafford to a lower-leg injury on the first series, were routed 47-7 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Those outcomes may not be comparable, with the Saints and Bucs playoff-bound and the Broncos and Lions with five wins apiece as of Sunday morning.
But normally as unflappable as their coach, the Browns had all their weaknesses exposed by a team that until a week ago had a bead on the first overall pick in the draft. Next Sunday, the Browns host the Steelers, who trounced them 38-7 at Heinz Field on Oct. 18.
“Everything we want is still in front of us,” left guard Joel Bitonio said. “We still have a chance to go to the playoffs.
“We’re still alive in this thing. But the team has to look at this film, though, and get better because it wasn’t good enough today, it wasn’t up to our standard of play. You take care of two or three things you want to improve on and get better because Pittsburgh is a good test, and they kicked our butts pretty good the last time we played them.”
It was a wake-up call, both in terms of COVID-19 vigilance and the state of the Browns’ defense and special teams. They let their guard down — in more ways than one — and the longest active playoff drought in league history could be extended as a result.
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