CLEVELAND, Ohio Doug Lesmerises — The Browns have trailed in every game this season, but have led entering every fourth quarter. In 300 minutes of football, the Browns have been ahead or tied for 236:45 and behind for 63:15. That means they’ve been behind for about 21% of the season. The Browns can play with anyone, and they’re 3-2.
The Browns fight and they have a plan. They’re pretty tough, pretty skilled and pretty smart.
Last week, the defense carried the team when Baker Mayfield had a bad day; and Sunday, the offense carried the team when the defense was fighting injuries and the officials, and facing a game-breaking quarterback and receiver pair. Their two losses have come by four points and five points, so their point differential of +28 is the second-best in the AFC behind the Buffalo Bills.
At 3-2, I’d say the Browns will be the definitively better team in eight of their remaining games, and more of a toss-up in their other four. A 13-4 record is still out there, though the Bills are the team to beat for homefield advantage in the AFC.
If Mayfield had been awful again Sunday, like he was last week against the Vikings, panic might be setting in. Instead, he looked more like the Mayfield of the first three weeks. If Jadeveon Clowney, Greg Newsome II (out before the game) and Denzel Ward (out early in the game) had played Sunday, the Browns probably would have won. Same for if the officials hadn’t thrown one of the worst pass interference flags you’ll ever see, when L.A. receiver Mike Williams grabbed a chunk of A.J. Green’s jersey on a fourth-and-4 prayer and somehow the call went against the Browns to keep alive what would be a Chargers touchdown drive.
The Browns should have taken over at the Chargers’ 41, up seven with nine minutes to play and already almost in field goal range. It’s not hard to imagine a healthy dose of Nick Chubb working the clock a bit and putting the Browns up two scores there. Instead, the 33-yard penalty gave the Chargers the ball 26 yards from the end zone and the tying score.
Without that egregious call, the Browns win.
But they still could have won. And they did not. Because in the final three minutes, this team, when behind, has a difficult time being who they are, because this is not a three-minute team. This is a 60-minute, 17-week team. That’s the deal when you are more smart and tough than explosive and dynamic. That is also the deal when the player most capable of game-breaking plays is on the sideline in those final three-minute situations, as Chubb was Sunday and often is.
So leading by a point with three minutes to play, Kareem Hunt ran right on a play with nothing there for a gain of 1. On second down, Baker Mayfield turned down his first read and then somehow didn’t let it fly when he got back to Odell Beckham Jr. on his second read. This is a tough one to understand, as Mayfield declined this to take a deeper shot to a covered Rashard Higgins.
That led to a third-and-9 handoff to Hunt that hinged on Austin Hooper blocking Joey Bosa. Instead, Bosa shed the block, set the edge and made the tackle, and the Browns punted after a possession that lasted less than a minute. Then they lost.
That was the Three-Minute Browns, and they aren’t as in control of things as the 57-Minute Browns that went toe-to-toe on the road with a young star quarterback all day. In the drive before that one, the Browns did use Chubb, and they did immediately find a rhythm. A screen to Hunt opened the drive with a 13-yard gain and 15-yard facemask penalty. Then Chubb for 8, Chubb for 24, Hunt for 7, Hunt for 8 and a score, and the Browns were in the end zone and back in the lead.
They couldn’t stop the Chargers again after that, not with so many defensive pieces missing. A week after the defense saved the day, it gave up two touchdowns in the final four minutes, the backbreaker a beautiful 33-yard sideline ball on the move from Herbert to Keenan Allen to convert a third-and-5.
But for most of the game, the Browns absolutely were good enough, even without Beckham getting much action once again. They looked ready for anyone. In their last two offensive possessions, they did not. First was that three-and-out, then came the final desperate drive starting with 1:31 that consisted of three underneath passes, one intermediate throw and three deep heaves. Never a chance.
The good news is that five games into the season, with their only two losses on the road against two of the best quarterbacks in football, the Browns have 95% of the game figured out. The first 57 minutes they can take anywhere. They (primarily the quarterback and play caller) have 12 weeks to keep working on the final three minutes. With a healthier defense, a more optimized Beckham and a more competent officiating crew, 57 minutes often will be enough. But the reality is that a 60-minute team might be 5-0 right now.