Analysis

Baker Mayfield exemplifies newfound poise of Cleveland Browns

CLEVELAND -- No one had to remind Hue Jackson of the importance of the victory. When your team has gone nearly three full years and 17 straight games without a division win, you know the significance. But as Jackson stood in the Browns locker room Sunday after beating the Ravens12-9 in overtime, he found deeper meaning in the manner in which his players had won. They displayed resolve and purpose -- particularly No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, who refused to bow to history or a Baltimore defense that was No. 2 overall and fourth against the pass.

"That team we played is a good football team, so we had to grind it out," Jackson said. "We knew it was going to be tough for Baker, but he was able to weather any storm and keep playing. That's how you grow in this league. It's not when everything is clean and easy and the ball is going up and down the field. It's when it's tough and people are hitting you and you're running for your life but you're making plays, you're making ad-lib plays. That's truly what makes quarterbacks grow in this league. There's no doubt it was more valuable for him to win this way. Let me tell you, he is something else. He's good now."

Jackson smiled. For the first time since arriving in town back in January of 2016, he has the tools to win with. His special teams remain shaky -- Sunday featured a missed PAT and field goal -- but the Browns compensated with a prideful, ballhawking defense that rebounded from a poor showing last week in Oakland to force two turnovers and push its league-leading season total to 15. The unit also kept the Ravens out of the end zone on three trips inside its 15-yard line, including two inside the 10 and one inside the 5.

But having true belief requires having a legitimate quarterback, and the Browns have one in Mayfield. The former Oklahoma star completed 25 of 43 passes for 342 yards and one touchdown (against one pick), but numbers don't reflect the depth of his performance. He was matched against a team that was 15-5 versus rookie quarterbacks since 2008, a team whose defense had the most interceptions (27) and best passer rating (59.6) against first-year signal-callers over those 10 years, yet he refused to blink.

After throwing an interception on his third attempt of the game, he came back to throw a momentum-generating touchdown just before the half. When confronted with third-and-longs against an edge-rush threat like Terrell Suggs and a ball magnet like safety Eric Weddle, he bought time to find open receivers for first downs. After the Ravens tied it at 9 with 52 seconds left in regulation, he had completions of 13 and 17 yards to help set up the potential winning field goal, which was wide left from 55 yards.

But what made Mayfield special on this day was his inability to be flustered, particularly in overtime. Many young quarterbacks would have panicked after an end-around lost 11 yards and produced a second-and-21 from their own 5-yard line. Instead, Mayfield scrambled for 13 yards, then, on the play of the game, avoided a stiff rush up the middle by pushing off the back of a blocker with his left arm to create enough space to find Derrick Willies over the middle for a 39-yard catch-and-run. Duke Johnson finished the drive with gains of 15, 5 and 4 yards on consecutive rushes to set up the decisive 37-yard field goal.

"I'm a fan of the game, and I respect good players, and he did a good job," said Weddle, who sought out Mayfield after the game. "He made some throws that were really good, and he made some others that were really bad that we could have capitalized on. But with the game on the line, he made a great throw and the guy made a great catch and run. As good as our defense played, they made one more play than us."

"Calm, collected, unfazed," wideout Jarvis Landry said of his QB. "He stepped up big and made plays with his arm, obviously, and made plays with his feet, getting out of some sacks. For a rookie, man, he's doing it. It's his attitude and charisma. He didn't budge. He didn't flinch. He continued to find ways to get the ball in people's hands and let them make plays. Things like that you don't see every day in a rookie quarterback, making decisions like that."

At 2-2-1, the Browns are off to their best start since going 3-2 in 2014. They've won consecutive home games for the first time in four years and their 2-0-1 start in FirstEnergy Stadium is their best since 2004. Arguably no fan base is more deserving of team success -- or the prospect of it, at least -- than the Browns', which endured an 0-16 season last year and a 1-15 season in 2016.

Landry, for one, admitted a negative thought went through his head after the botched end-around: "Damn, this again?" But as quickly as it came, it departed. These are not the 2017 Browns. Or the 2016 Browns. Or any recent facsimile. They are the 2018 Browns, which means they have two things those other clubs lacked: hope and a quarterback.

"Adversity shows a lot about everybody in these environments, games where they're not always pretty, they're back and forth, and it just comes down to how long you can stare in the face of that adversity and continue to make plays and continue to keep pushing," center JC Tretter said. "As a group, with Baker leading us, we just kept plugging along. We knew, if we just kept fighting and pushing, we could get it done. Baker is a guy who is never going to flinch in the face of adversity. He's just going to keep pushing and keep knowing he has a chance to win a game. This was a true test, a true battle. And just to see as a group how we looked it in the eyes and stared it down and won the game -- that's big for us as a group. That's the foundation for what we're building."

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter @JimTrotter_NFL.

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