Opinion: Cleveland Browns have turned former hype into legit substance

These are not the same ole Browns that your cousin, sister, auntie or daddy might have howled for. It’s a new generation.

Sure, it’s 2020. So many strange things have happened.

But this takes the cake. The Cleveland Browns are 9-3?

Go ahead, pinch yourself. It’s true. The first winning season for the franchise in 13 years can’t be nullified by a recount.

If you didn’t dare believe that the Browns were a legit playoff contender — remember the 38-7 smackdown at Pittsburgh several weeks ago — then take a load of what happened on Sunday at Nissan Stadium in Nashville.

Baker Mayfield and Co. served some serious notice by blasting the previously hot Tennessee Titans with a final score, 41-35, that was way closer than the game, as because Cleveland led 38-7 at halftime.

“We’re trending in the right direction,” Mayfield said after becoming the first Browns quarterback to throw four TD passes in a first half since Hall of Famer Otto Graham did it 69 years ago.

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Rashard Higgins of the Cleveland Browns celebrates with quarterback Baker Mayfield after catching a pass for a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans in the second quarter at Nissan Stadium on December 06, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo: Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

No, it hasn’t been that long since the Browns were in the playoffs. It just may seem that way for a segment of the fan base that wasn’t around in 2002 when they last celebrated a playoff berth in the Dawg Pound. It’s just as striking that the last time Cleveland’s NFL franchise was 9-3 was in 1994, when "Pulp Fiction" was all the rage and the team was coached by some fellow named Bill Belichick.

New historical markers came on Sunday with the fingerprints left by the likes of Mayfield, Myles Garrett, Nick Chubb, Jarvis Landry and Sheldon Richardson.

Cleveland jumped on Tennessee to score on its first five possessions, which hasn’t happened since 1999 (the year the franchise was reborn).

The 38 points were the most ever in the first half by the franchise (meaning that not even the great Jim Brown was part of something like that).

So much for a down-to-earth reality check. The reality is that the Browns, with an impressive first-year coach in Kevin Stefanski, have morphed into the type of rising outfit that is capable of putting the long-suffering, yet passionately loyal fan base out of its misery.

This was supposed to happen last year. Remember, the Browns were the preseason darlings projected as a surefire playoff team after adding key veterans, including now-injured Odell Beckham, Jr., to a stockpile of impressive young talent.

Then came the opener. They were smashed 43-13 by the Titans, setting the tone for a 6-10 finish that cost GM John Dorsey and coach Freddie Kitchens their jobs.

Yet now, with new GM Andrew Berry in charge, the Browns have turned the hype into substance.

“We’ve been building up,” Mayfield said during his postgame Zoom conference.

There was a bit of symbolism in beating the Titans, of all teams this side of the Steelers. Cleveland headed into Sunday with questions about the quality of its wins, seeing that it is 7-0 against sub-.500 opponents and had beaten just one team with a winning record. Make that two now.

Mayfield brushed off the noise doubting the quality of wins, maintaining, “We’re taking care of it inside the building.”

The Browns host the desperate Ravens in a Monday night contest in Week 14, then face the Giants and Jets in back-to-back games at Met Life Stadium before closing the regular season at home against the Steelers. At the moment, they hold the AFC’s top wild-card slot. Even a split in the final four games would likely clinch a playoff berth.

Mayfield, drafted No. 1 overall in 2018, has sometimes stirred the pot with brash remarks and cocky body language on the field. But after Sunday’s big win, he didn’t dare get swept up in the emotion of a win that has to bolster confidence. One game at a time, he clichéd. He seemed like an extension of the even-keeled Stefanski, striking a mellow, grounded tone when assessing the team’s growth.

He’s maturing, too, you see, having just finished a career-longest fifth consecutive game without an interception.

What’s the difference for Mayfield?

“I think about what I’m about to do and it’s, ‘Would an idiot do that?’ If they would, then I won’t,” Mayfield said in a nearly direct quote of Dwight Schrute from "The Office."

The Browns have built a balanced team around Mayfield, which undoubtedly lessens the burden on the franchise quarterback. He passed for 334 yards against the Titans, marking the first time all season he cracked 300 yards. In six games this season, he hasn’t even thrown for 200 yards. That’s what the league’s best 1-2 punch at running back can do. The Browns entered Week 13 on pace the lead the NFL in rushing for the first time since 1967, with Chubb and Kareem Hunt flirting with the possibility of becoming the rare set of running backs who both notch 1,000-yard season.

Yet to throttle the Titans, Stefanski sprung an aggressive attack that bucked his team's run-first pattern.

On each of the Browns' first five possessions, Stefanski called for more passes than runs. On five drives, that totaled 22 passes and just 11 rushing attempts (including a Mayfeld scramble). And the aggressiveness was accented by some creative wrinkles that surely added to the momentum because they worked.

There was a Landry completion to Mayfield off a reverse pass that was good for 6 yards and may have proved that Mayfield has his toe-tap down pat from repetition (As he insisted, “Before I brush my teeth, i toe-tap.”) On the next drive Stefanski called for a “big man’s touchdown” as Mayfield flipped a 1-yard pass to Kendall Lamm, a wide-open eligible tackle.

“It’s always been in the playbook,” said Chubb, who perfectly sold the play by diving atop the pile on a faked handoff. “It was just a matter of time before we used it.”

BIG-MAN TD.

Kendall Lamm hauls in the score for the Browns! pic.twitter.com/6I8XVt8F7t

The next drive took just one play. Mayfield connected with Donovan Peoples-Jones for a 75-yard touchdown where the rookie receiver created separation with a deft out-and-up move.

Everything worked perfectly. For a half. Richardson, the burly defensive tackle, produced two huge plays early in the game — a stuff on fourth-and-1 of NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry and then a strip-fumble of Henry — that led to quick touchdowns. Garrett led the pass-rush heat on Tannehill and left Nashville with his third double-digit sack season in as many campaigns.

Yet the Browns took home some lessons, too, as the Titans scrapped to make them sweat down the stretch. A Mayfield fumble, returned 53 yards by Kenny Vaccaro, set up the final touchdown in the last minute that put the Titans in striking range for a miracle.

“Obviously, if I held on to the damn football, it wouldn’t have been that close,” Mayfield said.

Lesson learned. Even better, the Browns are relevant enough this time of year that the mishaps matter a lot more than they used to.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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