Browns dare to dream as ‘ice cold’ Mayfield comes of age
After guiding the Browns to their first postseason win since 1994, Mayfield is preparing to face the Kansas City Chiefs
Assistant Sports Editor@JackRathborn
“Unbelievable”, he recalls from a game that took 545 yards and seven touchdowns to shake off Texas Tech as the points rained down in a frankly unfathomable 66-59 victory. Mahomes’ staggering 819 total yards and seven touchdowns were in vain that day, but the charismatic quarterbacks will duke it out again this weekend in the AFC Divisional round of the NFL play-offs.
Mayfield is still brimming after guiding the Browns to their first postseason triumph since 1994 in the chaotic scalp of divisional rivals Pittsburgh, validating the mercurial talent’s path since being snagged No 1 overall in the 2018 draft. Victory over the Steelers completed a remarkable turnaround for Mayfield following his slump last season, where his completion percentage dipped below 60 per cent, alongside 21 interceptions – the second-most in the league behind Jameis Winston.
Mayfield has rectified those numbers this year, bumping his completion percentage back up to 63 per cent and limiting his interceptions to just eight – the fifth fewest among those with 16 starts. While he has played with sheer excellence since Week 7, almost eradicating mistakes across 11 games with 2,732 yards (248 yards per game, at 64 per cent completion), 19 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
Crucially you have seen Mayfield show maturity; head coach Kevin Stefanski has lauded the “authentic” nature displayed after their play-off push wavered following two defeats in three games down the stretch. After a tough loss in a shoot-out against the Ravens, the impact of Covid-19 proved insurmountable against the then-winless Jets.
Mayfield’s personality certainly attracts attention, but the deserved criticism previously warranted from prickly responses to the media has since faded. His frank attitude to the Browns being hit as hard as any team by the pandemic, combined with an endearing series of commercials, ‘At Home With Baker Mayfield’, has seen him win over fans.
But his validation on the field this season doesn’t make Sunday’s game any less daunting, despite entering a frozen Arrowhead Stadium as a 10-point underdog.
“He’s been normal,” the Scottish punter Jamie Gillan tells The Independent. “I know this game is huge, but every snap or throw should be the same, he’s doing his same routine, not overthinking things, he’s ice cold.
“We can keep the same mindset the whole year, for everybody outside the facility, it’s a huge game with history in the making. But we can’t think like that as you’ll start to do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. We are doing everything we do that we do normally. It’s a normal game for us and our mindset.
Baker Mayfield and Myles Garrett celebrate against the Pittsburgh Steelers
“I don’t think we can hang our hat on winning one play-off game, thinking, ‘we’re good now,’ because we’re not. In our mind we have three more games. I don’t think we can relax. We want more than that.”
Stefanski will hope to lean on his bruising run game, led by the hulking Nick Chubb, boosted by the returning Joel Bitonio, a vital piece is the fortress Cleveland has built in front of Mayfield this season.
But it would be naive to expect the Kansas City Chiefs to keep the fireworks in the box for long, which will inevitably task Mayfield with trading blows and taking inspiration from that famous college game four years ago where he felt the need “to score on every single drive in the second half to win that game”.
Patrick Mahomes has rested during week 17 and the bye
Despite being in awe of Mahomes’ “unbelievable arm strength”, Mayfield is focusing on the details to ensure the Browns pull off a shock and advance to Championship weekend.
“I would say it’s about everybody being on the same page and just doing their job, and that makes everybody’s job easier,” Mayfield says.
“Don’t try and do too much. You stick within the plan, do the little details right and stay efficient. The guys up front and the skill guys around me have made my job extremely easy.”
One suspects no matter what, his job will not be comfortable on Sunday, even if his teammates “do their job.” But if Mayfield can pull this off, everybody will start to believe in the Browns.
Chiefs vs Browns kicks off on Sunday at 8:05pm GMT and you can follow the NFL Playoffs live this Saturday and Sunday on Sky Sports NFL, NFL GamePass and BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, or catch the highlights on The NFL Show on BBC One and NFL Endzone on Channel 5