CLEVELAND (AP) — The Browns don't have to impress any committee to make the playoffs. No need to appease a fickle segment of their fanbase, which demands their quarterback and coach be perfect while forgetting 0-16 wasn't so long ago.
All the Browns have to do is win, and Sunday they caught a huge break to survive a major scare.
“Right now, it’s just about winning," said star defensive end Myles Garrett. "That's all that matters.”
Despite being shut out in the second half and unable to stop Baltimore backup quarterback Tyler Huntley — not the dynamic Lamar Jackson — in the closing minutes, the Browns escaped with a 24-22 victory to keep their postseason pulse beating.
The win for the Browns (7-6) capped another whirlwind week that included COVID-19 sidelining three starters; rookie cornerback Greg Newsome II suffering a concussion on the last play of practice; a punter being signed off the street on Friday; defensive end Myles Garrett calling out his teammates for not being focused; and quarterback Baker Mayfield telling Hall of Famer Kurt Warner in an interview that he's been bothered by “a lot of internal things.”
Other than that, things are going smoothly, though they've got a shortened week ahead before a Saturday matchup with the Las Vegas Raiders. The Browns could again be missing one of their top playmakers after running back Kareem Hunt hurt his left ankle against the Ravens.
Sunday's win wasn't pretty nor stylish. It wasn't a loss, either.
"The point is to win a football game,” Mayfield said, trying to counter a predictable narrative from the city's arm-chaired quarterbacks. “If you have more points than the other team, then you have accomplished your goal.”
The Browns have loftier goals, including a first division title in 33 years, and their ambitions rest on Mayfield's shoulders — one of which isn't whole.
But one of the biggest positives to emerge from Sunday's game was Mayfield's overall performance and health. Although he missed some throws, had one interception and was lucky not to have a couple more, Mayfield did enough — 22 of 32 for 190 yards and two TDs — to keep the Ravens off-balance and perhaps quiet a few of his critics — for the moment.
Following the game, Mayfield, who missed one play while being checked for a concussion, said he feels healthier than at any point since Week 2, when he suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder, and later a fracture.
However, there seem to be cracks in Mayfield's marriage with the Browns.
Before Sunday's game, Mayfield raised eyebrows when he told Warner that “internal” criticism has been an obstacle this season.
"It hasn’t just been the outside noise,” he said.
Stefanski said Monday he wasn't sure what Mayfield was referencing.
“I think we have a good line of communication,” Stefanski said. "We just all – coaches and players – as we move forward with all of these big games, an AFC opponent this week, our focus is always going to be on the same page and doing what we need to do to go get a victory.”
With the Browns, those are never easy.
Garrett continues to build his case for NFL Defensive Player of the Year while leading a unit carrying the Browns.
Garrett set the team single-season sacks record with a strip and fumble return for his first career TD on Sunday. For the second straight game, he and end Jadeveon Clowney wreaked havoc.
“A one-two punch,” Garrett said.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Cleveland's strong running game is stalled. For the second game in a row, the Ravens shut down Nick Chubb, who had to fight for every one of his 59 yards on 17 carries.
The Browns are still adjusting to the loss of 2020 All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin, and it didn't help they were missing two tight ends to help open holes.
Eligible for a contract extension, cornerback Denzel Ward could soon cash in after another big game. He made a jarring early tackle to set the tone, then clinched Cleveland's win by stopping Rashod Batemen short of a first down on Baltimore's last drive.
Ward has three interceptions in his past four games and was voted the team's Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee last week.
After a strong start, kicker Chase McLaughlin has missed five field goals in the past seven games. He hit the upright on a 41-yarder Sunday in the fourth quarter that would have put the Browns up 27-9.
Stefanski said he has no plans to make a change.
Hunt, who has been slowed by lower leg injuries, got hurt after catching a third-down pass to set up Cleveland’s first TD. Stefanski said he'll likely be out due to a short week. The dynamic Hunt has missed five games with injuries, depriving the Browns one of their top playmakers. ... Newsome remains in concussion protocol. ... Stefanski didn’t have an update on tight end David Njoku, linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. and punter Jamie Gillan, all on the COVID-19 reserve list.
7 — Cleveland's combined points total in the last eight fourth quarters.
A chance to strengthen their playoff chances and knock out the Raiders, who wobble into Cleveland after being destroyed 48-9 at Kansas City.
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