Five years ago, the new uniform-wearing Cleveland Browns left the FirstEnergy Stadium field in stunned silence at the end of an unbelievable Monday night loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Late Monday night, the new uniform-wearing Browns again left the FirstEnergy Stadium field disappointed following another Monday night loss to the Ravens. This time, though, it was different -- much different.
Just don't tell the Browns' rookie head coach.
"I do not want to go down the moral victories [path]," Kevin Stefanski said. "We lost. We got beat. Proud of the guys and how they battled -- I really am -- but I just look at all the mistakes that we made, and we have to correct them."
The Browns did plenty of correcting between meetings with the Ravens this season, going from the losing end of a Week 1 blowout that had folks in Cleveland ready to burn it all down, to nearly winning what might end up going down as the NFL's game of the year. Baker Mayfield threw for 343 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, and was one of three Cleveland rushers to score at least one touchdown on the ground in the loss. Stefanski isn't about silver linings, though -- not with a playoff spot at stake.
"For us to reflect on Week 1 to Week 13, I do not think we are really in that mind frame," the coach said.
Cleveland stormed back from a 34-20 third-quarter deficit to take a 35-34 lead with less than half of the final period remaining before Lamar Jackson pulled his best Willis Reed (or Paul Pierce) impression, tying the game on an unlikely touchdown pass to Marquise Brown and eventually leading Baltimore 38 yards downfield to set up future Hall of Fame kicker Justin Tucker up for the game-winning boot. Tucker converted, giving the Ravens a 45-42 lead that finished at 47-42 following a final-play safety.
Presented with an opportunity to take a step closer to the playoffs and also all but slam the postseason door shut on the rival Ravens -- a team that was born out of the former Browns, and one against which the current Browns have never had such an opportunity -- Cleveland was slowly closing it, creaking as the Browns neared completion before Jackson returned from his cramping issue to barge through it with his heroic strike to Brown.
The Ravens were seemingly on the brink, losing all of the momentum gained by their two-score advantage built just a quarter earlier and forced to roll with backup Trace McSorley while Jackson sorted out his physical ailment in the locker room. McSorley suffered an apparent knee injury just as Jackson had solved his own problem, trotting out of the locker room just in time to keep the Ravens alive in a strange twist of fate.
"It was like a scene out of a movie," Mayfield said afterward. "I hate that for Trace McSorley. Praying that he is OK. As soon as he went down, you could see Lamar come trotting back onto the field. It was like geez. He is a great player. You are just going to have to try to contain him. You are never going to be able to stop guys like that. He is just a great player."
Five years ago, the stakes were much, much lower. John Harbaugh's Ravens were in the midst of a dreadful season that would see the Ravens finish 5-11, and was forced to start Matt Schaub following Joe Flacco's season-ending knee injury. Mike Pettine's Browns – yes, that's now three head coaches ago -- sent out Josh McCown, who suffered a broken collarbone in the primetime affair and was replaced by Austin Davis near the end of yet another losing season along Lake Erie (the Browns finished 3-13). The backup nearly led the Browns to a win, getting Cleveland in position for kicker Travis Coons to attempt a nearly identical kick to the one Tucker converted in 2020, lining up for a 51-yarder into the Dawg Pound end zone. Instead, his kick was blocked by Brent Urban and returned by Will Hill for a most improbable game-winning touchdown.
As Hill returned the blocked kick, first-round pick (and eventual draft bust) Cameron Erving sprinted after him in vain, struggling to slow himself before reaching the stadium wall in an image that perfectly captured just how massive of a gap existed between the Browns and respectability. Fans tore their jerseys -- literally -- off their bodies as they exited the stadium, the frustration and disgust unavoidable in any part of downtown Cleveland on that night.
Monday night was not that for these Browns, who proved something to the rest of the league despite the loss: This isn't your same old Cleveland team anymore. These Browns are capable of going and demonstrated they will go toe to toe with some of the league's best squads. They just have to find a way to get over that hump, and they have three games to figure out how to do so in 2020.
"It is almost going to be midnight here and it is almost going to be Tuesday, and we have a game coming up on Sunday," Stefanski said. "We will own this, and we will move on and put all of our efforts into next week."