CLEVELAND (AP) — Baker Mayfield strutted down the middle of the field like a helmeted drum major.
After connecting with rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones on a quick-strike, 75-yard touchdown pass, Cleveland’s quarterback immediately sprinted after his teammate while high-stepping as if leading a marching band.
Mayfield rediscovered his touch and some swagger on Sunday, and the Browns found their passing-game rhythm — and respect — in the Music City.
Silencing critics with every pinpoint completion, Mayfield finally played like a No. 1 overall pick should, throwing four touchdown passes in the first half as the Browns built a 31-point halftime lead and survived a late meltdown for a 41-35 win over Tennessee.
The victory clinched Cleveland’s first winning season since 2007 and all but secured a playoff spot.
The Browns (9-3) needed a signature win. They penned one in Nashville.
On the road, against a legitimate Super Bowl contender, the Browns, who came in with just one win over a team above .500, executed coach Kevin Stefanski’s game plan to perfection in the first half. They stamped themselves as legitimate threats in the AFC.
“Everybody’s eyebrows in a sense have been raised about our team,” wide receiver Jarvis Landry said afterward.
And maybe about Mayfield as well.
Plagued by inconsistency in his third season, Mayfield didn’t make a mistake while shredding Tennessee’s defense for 290 yards in the first half. He finished 25 of 33 for 334 yards and has gone nearly six games — 156 straight passes — without an interception.
Over that span, Mayfield, who has been prone to turnovers, has 11 TD passes, zero picks and the Browns have gone 5-1.
This is the accurate, aggressive, confident Mayfield that Cleveland thought it had during his strong rookie season, only to have it followed by a subpar second one that created doubts whether he was a franchise quarterback. That talk has quieted in Year 3 as the Browns close in on their first postseason berth in 18 years.
Mayfield credits his turnaround of late to being on the same page with Stefanski and their level of trust in each other. During Cleveland’s bye week, they dissected Mayfield’s game — good and bad — and came up with play concepts that suited the QB’s strengths.
Since then, Mayfield has been solid, not flawless. But he’s significantly better, and so are the Browns.
“Obviously, he is taking care of the ball,” Stefanski said. “He was extremely productive yesterday, found completions to all sorts of guys and had a completion himself. He is doing a nice job, and he is comfortable in what we are doing.”
Stefanski has pushed all the right buttons and he threw a literal curveball at the Titans by putting the game on Mayfield’s shoulders.
With the expectation of a ground battle between two of the NFL’s better running teams, the Browns went to the air. Mayfield tied Hall of Famer Otto Graham’s team record with four TDs in a half. Coincidentally, he did it on what would have been the legendary QB’s 99th birthday.
Stefanski’s play calling has been exceptional, and he dug into his bag of tricks as well, pulling off a tackle-eligible play to backup lineman Kendall Lamm for a TD and having Landry complete a pass to Mayfield.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Finishing. For the second time this season, the Browns nearly let a humongous lead slip away. Up more than four touchdowns, they relaxed and the Titans, helped by a late fumble by Mayfield, outscored Cleveland 28-3 after halftime.
The Browns had to recover an onside kick to squelch the comeback.
“The attention to detail was not there enough in the second half,” Stefanski said. “We knew Tennessee was going to come back. We knew they were going to give their best effort in that second half and we got it, but definitely some things I would like to clean up, and we will address those.”
Cleveland’s offensive line kept Mayfield out of danger with excellent protection. The group has meshed again after injuries and a COVID-19 case, and is playing as well as any front five in the league.
“We have done a really good job, but I still think there is room to grow in our group and we can always be better,” center JC Tretter said.
Stefanski loves tight ends, but he’s using them mostly to block rather than in the passing game. Tight ends Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant and David Njoku were targeted just three times Sunday.
The Browns finally got some good news as linebacker Mack Wilson did not sustain a concussion Sunday.
Stefanski said top cornerback Denzel Ward (calf) and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge (hamsring) remain day to day. Receiver Taywan Taylor (neck) will miss another week while defensive end Porter Gustin (COVID) has made progress and could return soon.
41 — Career sacks for defensive end Myles Garrett, who returned Sunday after missing two games with COVID-19. Garrett had one sack Sunday and was on the field for 52 of 72 snaps.
A chance to exact some revenge with a Monday night marquee matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, who drilled the Browns 38-6 in the season opener.
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