Browns' statement win over Titans legitimizes team as postseason threat

Baker Mayfield was pondering a common question -- What is different about you now? -- in the wake of the Cleveland Browns' statement-making 41-35 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday when he hit on what seems like the mantra for the Browns' season.

"Whenever I'm about to do something I think, Would an idiot do that?" Mayfield answered. "And if they would, I don't do that."

The Browns as The Office's Dwight Schrute seems about right -- eternally confident but unable to accrue much respect or advancement. There has been plenty of, well, idiocy, in the Browns' tortured history. Since they rejoined the NFL in 1999, they have enjoyed just two winning seasons. They have been to the playoffs just once, in 2002. They have been synonymous with dysfunction and directionlessness and infighting, often at the same time. It's not so much that the Browns are actively disrespected as that, like Schrute, nobody even puts the Browns and respect in the same thought.

That will change now, and fast. The Browns are 9-3, giving them the third-best record in the AFC behind only the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers and defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. And on Sunday, they finally won a game against an opponent that has accrued respect around the league because of its AFC Championship Game appearance last season, a victory that legitimizes the Browns franchise as a real postseason threat this season.

Until now, it was easy to shrug off Cleveland's record as a bit of a mirage, stuffed with victories over teams dwelling at the bottom of the league's standings, where the Browns used to reside. Their losses were to the teams that they must beat to be taken seriously as a playoff contender -- the Ravens, Steelers and Raiders. Until now, it was safe to look to the Browns' future as promising, but to look right past their present, as if the Browns were stuck on the treadmill of rebuilding without ever jumping off to actually contend.

The Browns' first-half explosion against the Titans -- they led 38-7 at halftime -- was the most impressive and unexpected half of football by any team this season. It was crisp and mostly efficient, and it showcased a Mayfield that Cleveland has been waiting for. He completed 20 of 25 passes (some of those incompletions were drops) and threw four touchdown passes in the first half, the first Browns quarterback to do that since Otto Graham in 1951. Mayfield remains fiery and a little snarky -- when he was asked about his outstanding, twisting, sideline catch on a trick play, he told a reporter that before he brushes his teeth, he toe taps -- but he is a more controlled version of the play-making quarterback who dominated at Oklahoma. He has gone five games in a row without an interception, the first time he has played so cleanly in the NFL, and he said that taking care of the ball was the most important thing to him.

"I know we did not finish the way we wanted to by any means, but in the first half, that was the most complete game or complete half that we have played," Mayfield said.

Later, about being trusted to throw so much earlier in the game, Mayfield said: "Those are the things that we have talked about, like after the bye week, going into it and looking at things that I like conceptually and things that [coach Kevin Stefanski] likes, how he sees it and getting on the same page. We are on the same page right now. ... It is just a very open line of communication. The fact that he trusts me that much makes me more confident."

It doesn't take much to read between the lines of Mayfield's comments. He has famously not always been on the same page with his coaches -- it was sometimes fair to wonder if Mayfield and his coaches were even in possession of the same book -- but Mayfield's comfort with Stefanski and an offense that is based off the run has settled the young quarterback, and in turn, that has elevated the Browns.

"Winning is fun," Mayfield said. "Winning covers up a lot of things. ... When you get a group that is hungry, sees the same things and works for the same things, that is when it really gets special."

The Browns are unlikely to catch the Steelers (11-0), but they have solidified their hold for now on one of the three wild-card spots. Their final four games are against the Ravens, who are also battling for a wild card, Giants, Jets and Steelers in the regular-season finale. If the Browns win any of those four games, they will equal the best record (10-win season in 2007) since the franchise re-entered the NFL.

One of Mayfield's best friends at Oklahoma played football at a Cleveland-area high school, so Mayfield has been hearing about the Browns since 2014, which means he has heard a lot about how beleaguered the team has been and how long the wait for a renaissance has been. The Browns and Mayfield are no longer doing the idiotic. It is finally time to take them seriously.

"I did not truly believe him until I really got here," Mayfield said. "I think it means a lot to them, but they need to reset their expectations because we all need to reset the standard. That is what I have been saying is there is a new standard and there is a foundation you have to continue to build on and improve. I think we are trending in the right direction."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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