Yes, Browns are for real; winning takes on new meaning with Cleveland in AFC playoff race

The Browns reached the turning point in Week 4 against the Cowboys.

Dallas had cut Cleveland’s lead to three points and with 3:42 remaining appeared to be on the cusp of rallying from a 27-point fourth-quarter deficit. The Cowboys play this type of game every week in the 2020 season; the Browns have lost this type of game since returning to the NFL in 1999.

That’s when Odell Beckham Jr. delivered that turning point — in the game and perhaps both teams’ seasons. He took a reverse 50 yards for a touchdown that clinched a 49-38 victory. The Browns improved to 3-1. The Cowboys dropped to 1-3. 

This isn’t about America’s Team, however. Dallas is, without question, the NFL’s most exciting team every week because of their wild finishes. Cleveland, on the other hand, finally — finally! — has emerged as the AFC’s most intriguing team after the first quarter of the season.

The Browns are now, at minimum, in genuine playoff conversations, and they’re there at the Cowboys’ expense. Cleveland had not beaten Dallas since a 19-14 victory at Texas Stadium on Nov. 10, 1994. That was the last season in which the Browns won a playoff game. There is a natural bump that comes from beating the Cowboys, even if this Dallas squad is a far cry from that Barry Switzer-led bunch 26 years ago.

Cleveland flashed everything that was promised in 2019 in the first half Sunday. Beckham caught two touchdown passes, including one from fellow receiver Jarvis Landry. Baker Mayfield threw two touchdown passes. A 24-point second quarter became the early high point of the Kevin Stefanski era. The Browns have averaged 39.3 points in their three victories — that’s up there with the elite offenses in the AFC.  

They also rushed for 307 yards, which was enough to withstand another comeback attempt by Dak Prescott.

IYER: Cowboys still have Prescott, weak competition in East

Dallas and Cleveland will be 1A and 1B on most national shows Monday morning, and the Browns item will be teed up by asking the same old question: Are they for real this time?  

The answer starts with the carryover effects from this game.

Running back Nick Chubb’s knee injury is the immediate focus. Chubb is the leader of the offense, and losing him would be a serious blow. But the Browns have depth at that position. Kareem Hunt (11 carries, 71 yards, two touchdowns) is another lead back. D’Ernest Johnson (13 carries, 95 yards) had a nice introduction to your fantasy league.

Beckham played his best game in a Browns uniform. He had 154 total yards and three total touchdowns against an old NFC East rival. You could make a strong argument that this game was more career-defining than that one-handed catch he made with the Giants on “Sunday Night Football” against Dallas. 

Mayfield delivered on a big stage, and that will be the biggest factor in the team moving forward. He finished with 19-of-30 passing for 165 yards and those two touchdowns; he didn’t try to do too much. He has been in command since a season-opening flop against the Ravens; this win was the next phase of his evolution as a player and the Browns’ evolution as a team.  

Now, Mayfield must progress to beating winning teams. He’s 2-11 as a starter against them; he’ll have opportunities to improve that record the next two weeks when he faces another legitimate playoff contender in the Colts (3-1) and the rival Steelers (3-0). The Dallas victory is a shiny one, but these next two games matter more in the AFC North and, yes, the AFC playoff hunt.  

Cleveland’s defense remains a question mark. Dallas passed 29 times on first down and nearly pulled off a miracle comeback. The Colts and Steelers are more balanced teams with far better defenses. If the Browns can win those two games, then there won’t be any doubt about what is going on in Stefanski’s first year as the head coach. By then, they might be ready for larger conversations involving the Ravens, Chiefs and Patriots.  

If they aren’t a playoff team now — especially with seven teams in each conference making the playoffs and a 3-1 start — then, well, by all means revert to talking about 1999 and fatalistic curses associated with long-time losing.

The Browns are winning now. At minimum, they’re past the turning point after last year’s comical 6-10 mess and appear ready to make that playoff breakthrough once and for all.  

All it took was one highlight-reel reverse to change course — now and perhaps for the foreseeable future.  

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