Can We Finally Trust Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns?

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What does it take to trust the Cleveland Browns and their young franchise quarterback, Baker Mayfield?

In that respect, the bar is understandably high for a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since the sixth season of Seinfeld, hasn’t been to the playoffs since the fourth season of The Sopranos and last finished a campaign with a winning record before the premiere of Breaking Bad.

It doesn’t help that the Browns, who are on their third head coach in as many seasons, went just 13-18-1 despite the fact they were loaded with emerging talent in 2018 and 2019. Or that they entered Sunday with a 7-0 record against teams with losing records but a 1-3 mark against winning opponents.

Or then again that the tantalizingly capable however frustratingly conflicting Mayfield entered Week 13 as the main quarterback in the NFL with five or more triple-digit-evaluated games and five or more single-game appraisals under 80 out of 2020.

In any case, on Sunday, the Browns finished their subsequent four-game series of wins of the year and secured their first winning season since 2007 with a persuading 41-35 triumph over a rival—the Tennessee Titans—who has a triumphant record, and Mayfield posted a 115 or more passer rating for the second week straight (denoting the first run through he’s done that since his 2018 youngster crusade).

It was Cleveland’s first street triumph over a group with a triumphant record since September 2019.

Was that the exhibition we expected to at long last put stock in the Browns?

Some will take a gander at the last box score and be suspicious of those 35 focuses permitted, however that score is fairly deceptive after the Titans cushioned the numbers in trash time. There wasn’t a lot of uncertainty Cleveland would secure this pivotal triumph once it took a 38-7 first-half lead. And keeping in mind that it would have been pleasant if the Browns got running far from Tennessee, there’s restricted disgrace related with letting a top notch adversary make a game semi-intriguing in the final quarter.

The AFC South-driving Titans held a twofold digit lead over the inevitable Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in a year ago’s AFC Championship Game. It would have been astounding on the off chance that they didn’t set up a late, good battle at home.

All things considered, the protection is a risk. In the Browns’ three hardest games this season (out and about against the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Titans), they’ve given up a normal of 37.0 focuses per trip. In the second half specifically, Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill dismantled a last 10 pass safeguard regarding DVOA (guard changed an incentive over normal at Football Outsiders) that was without top cornerback Denzel Ward.

Ward ought to in the long run get back from a calf injury and edge safeguard Myles Garrett keeps on performing like a Defensive Player of the Year competitor, however it’s a cumbersome D that has practically no edge for blunder. On the off chance that the offense isn’t clicking or Garrett isn’t playing at a lights-out level, they’re probably going to get lit up and lose.

That’s the scenario fellow playoff-caliber opponents like the Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs or Buffalo Bills will hope plays out if any of them run into Cleveland in January. Even without top wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.—they’ve now gone 5-1 since OBJ suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 7—the Browns have a high enough ceiling to beat any of those top-notch AFC teams in the postseason.

But it’s even easier to imagine them getting blown out, especially if they draw the Steelers or Ravens. Those two AFC North rivals outscored Cleveland 76-13 in two one-sided victories earlier this season, and the Browns have now lost four consecutive games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh dating back to last December.

Some might not be convinced of the Browns’ resurrection until they prove they can go toe-to-toe with one or both of those contending division-mates, which would require patience for at least another week (they host the Ravens next Monday night), another month (the Steelers come to town in Week 17) or possibly a hell of a lot longer.

But because it’s the 21st century and thus the most pass-happy, quarterback-centric era in NFL history, Cleveland’s fate is almost certainly aligned with Mayfield’s. The 2018 No. 1 overall pick has been streaky and mistake-prone throughout his career, but it is possible he’s taking off.

You might not be ready to trust him based on his uneven rookie season, his rocky sophomore campaign and the roller-coaster ride that has been 2020, but the 25-year-old is now much better supported by an influx of offensive line talent (they have two new high-quality tackles) and stronger coaching (Kevin Stefanski is a major upgrade over the in-over-his-head Freddie Kitchens).

Rustiness should have been expected in September and maybe even October after the offense underwent so much change in a scaled-back, pandemic-impacted offseason. Quarterbacks often take a big step forward in their third year, and Mayfield just might be doing exactly that in a slightly belated fashion.

Not only has Mayfield thrown six touchdown passes and posted a 133.7 passer rating in the last two weeks, but a fumble on a fourth-quarter keeper marked just the third time he’s turned the ball over during the team’s current six-game hot streak. And he hasn’t thrown an interception since October—a stretch during which he’s thrown 156 passes. That’s a tremendous sign of progress, especially considering that he’s contended with poor weather conditions in several of those games.

For what it’s worth in a small sample, he was also 4-of-5 on deep passes Sunday and is now 9-of-13 on deep attempts the last three weeks.

Skeptics will argue Mayfield and the Browns haven’t faced a good defense during that stretch, and they’re right. Nobody will fault you for waiting a little bit longer before falling for this historically untrustworthy team, but at this point, writing them off would also be a significant mistake.

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