Life is nice in the NFL when you are winning, which is a lesson the Cleveland Browns are learning on a weekly basis in 2020.
The Browns will carry a 9-3 record and a four-game winning streak into Monday night’s game against the Baltimore Ravens. While the Browns can’t clinch a playoff spot with a win against the Ravens, a victory would go a long way toward ending the NFL’s longest playoff drought.
Cleveland has put itself in the playoff race on the backs of an opportunistic bend-but-don't-always-break defense, a coaching staff that continues to come up with a solid gameplan each week, and an offense that is putting up some impressive numbers.
- The offensive line started the season with three new starters in right guard Wyatt Teller and tackles Jake Conklin and Jedrick Wills Jr., but has gelled into one of the league’s best units.
- A defense that entered the weekend tied for third in the NFL with 20 takeaways.
- Quarterback Baker Mayfield has a three-to-one ratio on touchdown passes (21) to interceptions (seven) and is currently gone 156 passing attempts without an interception.
- Running back Nick Chubb comes into the weekend fourth in the league in rushing yards (799), first in runs of 20-plus yards (11), and first among running backs in average yards per carry (6.0) - despite missing four games.
It is more than stats, however, that have the Browns winning. It is the desire to put winning over stats that has helped drive the team to the brink of the playoffs.
That is most evident among the wide receivers, who are led by Jarvis Landry’s 54 receptions and 676 yards.
Seemingly every week a different wide receiver steps up when the Browns need him the most:
- In Week 7 against the Cincinnati Bengals, it was Rashard Higgins (six receptions for 110 yards) and Donovan Peoples-Jones (three receptions for 56 yards and the game-winning touchdown).
- In Week 11 against the Philadelphia Eagles, it was KhaDarel Hodge (three receptions for 73 yards) and Higgins (three receptions for 65 yards).
- In Week 12 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, it was Landry (eight receptions for 143 yards and one touchdown).
- In Week 13 against the Tennessee Titans, it was Higgins (six receptions for 95 yards and a touchdown), Peoples-Jones (two receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown) and Landry (eight receptions for 62 yards and a touchdown.)
The ability to spread the ball around without worrying about who is on the receiving end as long as they make a play may have taken some time, but the payoff is coming at the right time, pass game coordinator and wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea told clevelandbrowns.com:
“At the receiver position, it’s our job to be very detailed and precise in the pass game and be exactly where we need to be at all times and have consistency in that area. I think Baker is trusting our guys to do that. He’s definitely shown that by his play.
“It’s not something that just happens overnight. It’s built on the practice field. These guys have been working together now for some time, and they’ve really developed chemistry and confidence in each other. I appreciate Baker’s willingness to come back to a player, especially after they experience an early drop.”
None of the current group of wide receivers has gone through as much as Higgins, who survived the 1-31 stretch under Hue Jackson, an extended stay in the doghouse of Freddie Kitchens, and a slow start to this season to become one of the weekly contributors on offense.
The feeling of having more wins this season than in three of his previous seasons combined is not lost on Higgins, as he told Marla Ridenour at The Beacon Journal:
“I want to go to the playoffs. I want to win games. I want to see this team prevail, overcome the 0-16. I’ve been here and the hell with losing, man, it’s not fun, it’s not fun at all. To see the other side of losing, it’s amazing, man, and it’s a helluva feeling having nine wins right now.”
The Browns will be playing in front of a national audience on Monday night, many of whom will look at the wide receivers - outside of Landry - and wonder just who the heck they are.
They will soon realize, however, that they are part of an effort to emphasize wins over stats, and a big part of the reason why the Browns are on the verge of heading to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.