CLEVELAND — It took but a few seconds for teammates to rush to the aid of Baker Mayfield after he was tackled at the sideline during the fourth quarter of the Cleveland Browns‘ 26-18 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
Rashard Higgins and Jarvis Landry were the first to arrive, and some pushing and shoving ensued. Mayfield popped up and jawed immediately with Carlos Dunlap, who had tackled him just as he went out of bounds.
It wasn’t a dirty hit, and Mayfield didn’t claim it was.
But it was an indication of the jelling of a team, of the results of a turnaround unmatched in Browns history. Sunday’s win improved the Browns to 7-7-1, a 7 1/2 -game improvement over a winless 2017 and the biggest improvement in team history. The Browns also finished 5-2-1 at home, the second-best mark since 1999 and the best since 2007.
The excitement level in the stands reflected what was happening on the field, as Mayfield has completed 64.6 percent of his throws, second in Browns history behind Hall of Famer Otto Graham, who was at 64.7 percent in 1953. Yes, Mayfield has the highest completion percentage in 65 years, and he could set the Browns all-time mark with another good game in the finale.
Mayfield is at the center of many reasons for the Browns’ reversal of fortunes in 2018. His play and swagger have been eye-opening, and the belief he has engendered was shown on the sideline after Dunlap’s tackle. In many Browns past seasons, a tackle like that would have resulted in little or no reaction. Not this time.
“I’ve got my boy regardless of anything,” Higgins said. “I would hope my teammates have my back, too. I’m not going to shy away from any defender. I only fear God. That is how it’s going to be.”
Said running back Nick Chubb: “You’ve got to protect Baker. You’ve got to keep him safe and playing at a high level. The whole team has his back.”
Mayfield said he was reaching for the first down and Dunlap would have been questioned had he not hit him. Dunlap also had no issue with Mayfield’s teammates coming to his defense.
“I would love to see that from my guys, as well, in that situation,” Dunlap said.
Because it showed a team that had grown together, a team that cared, a team that believed in its young leader.
“That shows how close we are,” Mayfield said. “Obviously it’s a great feeling to have knowing that people have your back. They have that feeling from me, too. I have their back. That is a real team right there.”
Close teams have lost; the key with the Browns is they are playing well and winning. Since they fell to 2-6-1 after a loss to Kansas City in Gregg Williams’ debut as interim coach, the Browns have reeled off five wins in six games. The only loss was in Houston when Mayfield threw three first-half interceptions, then threw for 351 yards in the second — more than any Browns quarterback has had since AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
They’ve played some teams who were down. The Bengals were without Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. Denver was down two receivers and three cornerbacks. Carolina was using Cam Newton at quarterback trying to throw with an injured shoulder.
The Browns took advantage of every opportunity, though, which is what they are supposed to do. They’ve played games for years with teams beating up on them; there is no remorse or second thought doing the same to those teams.
This Bengals game was close only because of a couple of late Cincinnati scores; for the most part, the Browns handled the game with relative ease. They beat up on a team that had beaten up on them the past few years.
Before this season, the Bengals had beaten the Browns seven games in a row with an average score of 30-9.
In the two Mayfield starts this season, the Browns have won by a combined score of 61-36 — which as much as anything shows what could and should be a changing of the guard in the AFC North heading into 2019.
“When we play division opponents, they need to know exactly what they are going to get out of us,” Mayfield said. “And it needs to be a game they need to prepare for every year, twice a year.”
For the first time since 2011, the Browns will not finish in last place in the division. They have a chance to send Baltimore’s playoff hopes reeling Sunday in the season finale.
And again, after the game, Mayfield reiterated that anyone who wasn’t interested in going to Baltimore to win could “get out of this locker room.”
“We have a mentality that needs to be kept,” Mayfield said. “And that standard is there.”