Mayfield raises game, takes Browns with him toward playoffs

·4 min read

CLEVELAND — Giants coach Joe Judge got so fired up talking about Baker Mayfield's competitive attitude that he accidentally let an expletive slip during a Zoom call.

“I'm sorry,” Judge said to reporters. “I apologize for my language."

Even tough-to-please New Yorker's are impressed by Mayfield these days, and Cleveland's quarterback is flattered.

"I am passionate about the game, so I appreciate that,” he said.

Mayfield has been a different QB in the second half of this season, stringing together a strong stretch of games and playing with a renewed confidence while pushing the Browns (9-4) to the brink of clinching their first playoff spot since 2002.

“Poetry in motion,” Browns linebacker B.J. Goodson said of Mayfield's recent run. “It's beautiful to watch.”

Mayfield has eight touchdown passes and just one interception in his last three games, and Monday night he shook off his first interception since Oct. 25 and nearly rallied Cleveland in the second half. Lamar Jackson's late heroics gave the Baltimore Ravens a 47-42 win in a wild game that featured 20 points scored in the final 1:51.

After his critical pick in the third quarter, Mayfield completed 11 of 14 passes for 149 yards, threw two touchdown passes and ran for one. He finished with season highs in completions (28) and yards (343) while showing a national TV audience the Browns are for real.

As he watched film to prepare the Giants' defence for Mayfield, Judge has seen a quarterback making smart decisions, pinpoint throws, running in key situations and winning.

Judge knows Mayfield's backstory — from college walk-on to starter at two schools to Heisman Trophy winner — and has become something of a fan.

“I love the attitude he plays with," he said. “I love the chippiness he plays with."

Judge is also impressed with Mayfield's ability to find a small seam to slip through and escape when under pressure.

“This guy does a great job of playing freeze tag in a phone booth and coming out the winner,” he said. "He extends the play. He can run the ball vertically or throw it down the field. This guy is a tremendous competitor. He's got a strong arm. He can make every throw.”

Since Cleveland's bye week, Mayfield has played like the franchise quarterback the Browns hoped they were getting when the team drafted him with the No. 1 overall pick in 2018. Whether connecting with receivers on roll outs, delivering accurate throws from behind his line or running when it's the better option, Mayfield has been on point.

“He's playing great," said Browns running back Nick Chubb. "We all go through him. As good as he is is as good as the team can be. He has been playing great for us. I just see a lot of greatness. We all believed in him. He has shown it.

“When he's on like this, he does not miss.”

Browns coach Kevin Stefanski accepted some of the blame for Mayfield's first interception on Monday — his first after 187 consecutive throws without one. Cleveland was deep in its territory when Mayfield was picked off by Ravens linebacker Tyus Bower.

“I feel like I put Baker in a tough spot on that interception,” Stefanski said.

But the mistake didn't slow Mayfield, who dusted himself off and led the Browns on three straight touchdown drives.

Mayfield was asked if the “old Mayfield” would have struggled to forget that play.

“Maybe," he said. “I think it is hard to say definitely yes or no. I was just so angry about that.”

If there was a turning point for Mayfield this season, it came during Cleveland's bye week. That's when he, Stefanski and offensive co-ordinator Alex Van Pelt met to discuss what Mayfield needed to work on — physically and mentally.

There was tough criticism along with some praise. They looked at plays that were successful to run again, and threw out some in the playbook. They addressed Mayfield's and came up with a game plan that has turned his season around.

“It was conversations that we had to be able to kind of evaluate where we were as an offence and what we were doing well and what we were not doing well,” Mayfield said. "Those conversations that we were able to go through of how I am seeing it and just the things that we missed in an off-season with no preseason games, vital conversations that we were able to get even more on the same page.

"We are seeing that now. Playing with confidence is where I am at my best. Trusting these calls, trusting my eyes and going through it and trusting my guys around me.”

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Tom Withers, The Associated Press