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As Frustration Mounts in Denver, Underscored by Vance Joseph’s Call, Confidence Builds in Cleveland

Saturday night's game in Denver showed two franchises going in opposite directions—a confident Browns team recognizing their opponent’s plays at crucial moments (and boosted by Kobe Bryant’s words) and a slipping Broncos’ team, baffled by their head coach’s decisions.

DENVER — Though the teams had equally minuscule odds at making the playoffs this late in the 2018 NFL season, the two franchises facing off on an unseasonably warm winter evening on Saturday night couldn’t have been further apart.

On one sideline were the Browns and their quarterback—at long last, the quarterback—Baker Mayfield, proving once again in his rookie campaign that he’s the guy for the job in Cleveland as long as he’s upright. And on the other sideline were the Broncos and their head coach Vance Joseph, giving the folks who’d like to run him out of town more than enough ammunition for the week.

At issue, and at front of mind in a depressed Denver locker room following a 17–16 loss to Cleveland (the franchise’s first loss to the Browns in an astounding 28 years), dropping the team to 6–8 on the season, was Joseph’s dubious decision to kick a field goal on fourth-and-one, down four points, with 4:35 left to play.

Context is everything: the Broncos’ historically stout defense was on its last leg, with cornerback Chris Harris unavailable due to injury, cornerback Bradley Roby playing with a gash through his lip that required five stitches and cornerback Jamar Taylor needing an ejection after a second-half altercation. The offensive line wanted to go for it badly; guard Jared Veldheer and others tried in vain to wave off the incoming field goal team. But Joseph chose to kick it, preserving a Browns lead they would not relinquish.

“Yes, we wanted to put it in!” offensive tackle Garett Bolles said. “It’s fourth-and-one, and the game’s on the line. We wanted to do it. But at the same time, that’s the coach’s call. We had plenty of chances to get it in before that.”

“I was hoping we were going for the win,” Roby said. “We were down corners. We had one healthy corner. We were one yard away. I just knew we were gonna go for it, and when we didn’t, I was disappointed. I’m just upset.”

Roby said out loud what the rest of his teammates were whispering—how could a head coach who has called for more fourth-down conversion attempts than 30 other NFL teams (19 this season), who has stood in defiance of critics who say he’s too aggressive on fourth down, who earlier this week needled his veteran quarterback in the media for not being aggressive enough with the football, now suddenly back down when the time was actually right to go for it?

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In the visitors’ locker room, Browns players were equally perplexed by Joseph’s decision to kick the field goal. “We were very surprised about that,” Browns wide receiver Rashard Higgins said. “They basically said, we trust our defense to stop these guys, but it’s too late for that." 

It had been an especially validating night for Higgins, who caught just two passes on three targets but turned in one of the best catches of the night on the Browns’ go-ahead drive. The receiver improvised on second-and-nine with a sprint up the sideline and a comeback, toe-tap first down at Denver’s 16-yard line. Mayfield, escaping the pocket and Bradley Chubb’s grasp, found Higgins on the same page. Higgins’s decision to come back to the football in a scramble drill coincided with Mayfield’s blind choice to toss the football shallow and away, the kind of play that only happens when the quarterback and wide receiver have a certain brand of chemistry—something we’re not used to seeing in Cleveland, who sits at 6-7-1 now.

“We had to do that once in the Houston game,” Higgins says. “Me and [Mayfield] are always on the same page, and that’s something we all work on a lot.”

Moments later, Mayfield found a slanting Antonio Callaway in the end zone for the quarterback’s second touchdown pass of the night. His first came on the Browns opening drive, when Mayfield lobbed a dime 31 yards downfield to a tightly-covered Breshad Perriman, who’s been on the team for all of two months after being signed off the street on Oct. 13.

Higgins struggled to remember an occasion in a practice or a game when Mayfield made a similar throw to the third-year receiver with 10 catches and no touchdowns as a Brown going into Saturday night. But Mayfield chucked it anyway. “I’m so happy he did, and it was just a perfect ball,” Perriman said.

This Browns quarterback, insistent these Browns already have the pieces to be successful, is making no excuses.

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“I trust my guys,” Mayfield said after the game. “I’ve said that all along. We have what we need in this locker room. I trust those receivers and they need to know that. Putting the ball up for them to make a play, I trust [Perriman] right now. He’s been making the plays and they feed off that. You build that confidence with them and the next one, I guarantee he catches too.”

After that one, Mayfield jawed with a section of the home crowd behind the Browns sideline, just because. Maybe it was Kobe Bryant talking—the retired Lakers guard addressed the Cleveland players on Saturday night at the team hotel in Denver and spoke privately with Mayfield for a brief time. “I just love how that guy doesn’t care about anybody’s feelings,” Mayfield says. “He cares about winning above all else.”

The confidence the Browns locker room has placed in Mayfield to do just that—win by any means—starkly contrasts the sense of uncertainty higher up the Cleveland food chain. No one was buying stock in interim coach Gregg Williams or interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens maintaining roles in the organization beyond 2018 when GM John Dorsey fired head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley and installed Williams, yet the Browns are 4–2 since the moves, and at 6-7-1, clinging to slim playoff hopes a season removed from an 0–16 finish.

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Williams, though, had his own fourth-and-one play call nearly blow up in his face when he chose to go for it at the Denver 10-yard line with 1:49 left to play, up 17–16. Denver defensive tackle Adam Gotsis stuffed Nick Chubb behind the line of scrimmage, giving the Broncos the football and a chance at a game-winning field goal drive. Technically, Joseph’s faith in his defense proved correct—instead, it was the offense and its lackluster veteran quarterback, Case Keenum, that couldn’t get the job done. In the process, the Browns would demonstrate just how far they’ve climbed out of 0–16 ignominy.

After moving the chains on a fourth-and-two throw, Keenum spiked the ball on first down to stop the clock, and threw incomplete twice, setting up fourth-and-10 at the 50. Williams called for an all-out blitz with four linemen, two linebackers and second-year safety Jabrill Peppers charging the quarterback. By design, the Browns expect teams to keep a running back in to block, so the blitz calls for Peppers to loop around the defensive end on the left. They’ve run the play before this season a handful of times and Peppers had yet to earn a sack. But the Broncos’ tipped their hand, motioning tight end Matt LaCosse from the far right to a traditional tight end position.

Peppers said the Broncos had run a similar play earlier in the game, and they slid the protection away from LaCosse then, so he freestyled and shot the gap between the tight end and the tackle and took Keenum down for the win. Afterwards, defensive coaches asked Peppers if he’d been tipped off by the LaCosse position, which he had. 

“I was really supposed to loop all the way around,” Peppers says. “That tight end came in, and I knew they were going to slide. The better you know offensive protections the better blitzer you are.”

Remarkably, the Browns stayed in man coverage for the entire drive, choosing to pressure Keenum consistently with blitzes and rely on a young secondary to go step for step with Broncos receivers. There was no disguise to it, no camouflage—just one team lining up across from an adversary with the sort of confidence that can only come from simply being better.

“You gotta show us those receivers you’ve got are better than us,” Peppers says. “They didn’t show us that.”

Slowly over the course of a penalty-filled, painfully-slow 60 minutes, a new reality emerged in the AFC. The Browns—with their franchise quarterback, their cornerstone edge rusher, their stud rookie corner, a breakout running back and a veteran offensive line—may just be closer to a Super Bowl than the Broncos, the 2015 Super Bowl champions who have two cornerstone edge rushers and a slew of promising rookies, but lack the franchise quarterback and that all-important intangible: Faith in the mission.

Peppers was asked to recall the last time the Browns having that kind of confidence in zero coverage, late in a close game.

“Man I’m not even gonna lie to you,” Peppers said with a laugh. “I can’t remember a time like that. That’s a great feeling.”

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