CLEVELAND (AP) — Baker Mayfield forcefully planted his Browns flag on Sunday.
With the weight of a city’s football hopes riding on his back, Mayfield delivered for Cleveland and its long-suffering fans.
Coming off an embarrassing performance a week earlier, Mayfield, who came into the NFL vowing to return a fallen franchise to glory, sent the Browns back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 — and perhaps into a new era.
“He wanted this one, I can promise you that,” first-year coach Kevin Stefanski said of his quarterback.
Mayfield threw a touchdown pass and made several big runs, including a game-sealing sweep in the final minute, as the Browns ended the NFL’s longest playoff drought with a 24-22 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers to set up a rubber match between the AFC North rivals in the playoffs on Sunday.
The victory should quiet any discussion whether Mayfield’s the franchise quarterback that eluded the Browns for years. The team is expected to pick up his fifth-year contract option after the season and possibly sign him to an extension.
Mayfield’s earned it.
He showed up three years ago brimming with swagger, cradling a Heisman Trophy and best known for TD passes, trash talking and on-field antics. Such as the time he tried to spike an Oklahoma flag into Ohio State’s logo after beating the Buckeyes.
After finally putting away the Steelers on Sunday, Mayfield, who fumbled three times last week in a loss to the New York Jets, clutched the game ball tightly while doing postgame interviews on the field. He then walked off as “Cleveland Rocks” blared through FirstEnergy Stadium’s speakers.
Mayfield glanced at the scoreboard to see highlights of “Brian Sipe, Bernie Kosar and some old-schoolers,” naming two legendary Browns QBs.
Cleveland just might have a new one.
With the Browns clinging to their lead and facing a critical third-and-2 with 1:10 left, Stefanski put the game in Mayfield’s hands — well, actually his feet.
Mayfield initially thought it was a joke when a designed running play was called. But he rolled right, picked up blocks from right tackle Jack Conklin and running back Kareem Hunt, and sprawled forward past the marker for a first down.
Once he turned the corner, Cleveland’s playoff drought was history.
Mayfield punctuated an otherwise routine play that will surely be remembered by Browns fans with an emphatic first-down signal.
He’s pointing the way now, fulfilling the promise made at the NFL combine in 2018, when Mayfield confidently said if the Browns wanted someone to lead them from the darkness, they should take him with the No. 1 overall draft pick.
“He brings people along,” Stefanski said of his 25-year-old leader. “He’s the guy who everybody looks to. His leadership is on display at all times. He’s a fiery player. He’s a fiery person. You just see a player who really wants it.”
Mayfield’s three seasons have been filled with ups and downs. He’s on the rise now and bringing the Browns with him.
For the second straight week, Stefanski didn’t overuse his running back tandem of Nick Chubb (14 carries) and Kareem Hunt (10). While his decision not to ride Chubb during a strong first half was questionable, he’ll have them fresh enough for the Steelers, who won’t be sitting defensive studs T.J. Watt or Cameron Heyward this week.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Cleveland’s secondary was missing top cornerback Denzel Ward, part-time starter Kevin Johnson and starting safety Andrew Sendejo after they tested positive for COVID-19. Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph exposed the Browns’ backups while throwing for a career-high 315 yards.
Stefanski wouldn’t say if Ward can — or will — return this week. The Browns need him to take either Juju Smith-Schuster or rookie Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh’s top playmakers.
Rookie linebacker Jacob Phillips did a nice job filling in for starter B.J. Goodson, who missed his second straight game with the coronavirus. Phillips handled the signal calling for Cleveland’s defense and finished with a team-high 10 tackles.
“He did amazingly well,” defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi said. “To step in a role in a big game like that and play as well as he did is a testament to how much he wants it.”
The Browns’ offensive line was healthy again, but out of sync, which could partially be blamed on little practice last week due to COVID-19 protocols.
Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio was twice whistled for false starts and Mayfield was sacked four times. It didn’t help that the unit was missing coaches Bill Callahan and Scott Peters, both on the COVID-19 list.
Cleveland’s defense lost a big piece with end Olivier Vernon rupturing an Achilles tendon. Vernon has been a strong contributor all season (9 sacks) and he stepped up when Pro Bowler Myles Garrett missed two games with COVID-19.
Also, rookie wide receiver and punt returner Donovan Peoples-Jones has a concussion.
17 — Consecutive losses at Heinz Field for the Browns, who haven’t won in Pittsburgh since 2003.
The Browns insist they’re not concerned with past issues in Pittsburgh, and dismiss any idea they lack playoff experience. Stefanski pointed out the team has coaches and players who have won Super Bowls.
“Guys have been there and they understand once you get here, you have a chance,” he said.