September 15, 2021

The Cleveland Browns Proved They're Super Bowl Pretenders in 2021

In the first half of the Browns' Week 1 loss to the Chiefs, Cleveland's offense could do no wrong — especially quarterback Baker Mayfield, who looked as sharp as ever.

Unfortunately for the Browns, an NFL game consists of two halves. 

In the NFL, there is no such thing as a "good loss." Every game matters and the Browns had this contest won. Whether it is inexperience or just dumb luck, one thing is clear, the Browns have yet to take that next step to become Super Bowl contenders. 

Sure, the Browns will probably be a playoff team because of how talented they are. They very well may win the division. But the difference between a pretender and a contender in the highly competitive AFC will come down to finishing off teams.

The Chiefs are an excellent example of that. Here's why Cleveland shouldn't consider themselves contenders quite yet. 

Baker Mayfield Must Take Next Step

While Mayfield did not register a touchdown pass and threw the game-sealing interception on the Browns' final drive, you could just tell, Mayfield has arrived.

He finished 21-of-28 passing for 321 yards and a 97.5 passer rating. Without Odell Beckham Jr., who was a late scratch, Mayfield completed passes to nine different receivers, including third-round rookie Anthony Schwartz. On the day, Schwartz had three receptions for a nice 69 yards. He also added a 17-yard-rush to the ledger. 

Zero touchdown passes from Mayfield will alarm the box-score analysts, but Mayfield did an exceptional job in the decision-making department. Mayfield might never be a 40-touchdown guy in this offense, sure, but he can still be a difference-maker for the Browns. 

Even though Mayfield can be a true gun-slinger in this league, as evident by his 10.4 yards per pass, the offense works so much better when he plays more like a game-manager and trust the league's best running-back tandem will be able to take care of the rest.

But that might not be enough for the Browns to go from playoff participant to Super Bowl contender. The Browns will need Mayfield to take the next step in his development if they want to compete this season. 

No Moral Victories

At the end of the day, Mayfield and the Browns failed. A fumble by Chubb in the third quarter and the dropped snap by punter Jamie Gillan were the Browns' two biggest blunders, but it wasn't the only reason Cleveland lost.

After a Hunt touchdown with 10 minutes left in the game put the Browns up by nine, all the defense needed to do was drain the clock. If the Chiefs scored a touchdown, it was not the end of the world as long as some time was chewed off the clock. With the way the Browns were running the ball, they had a chance to ice the game. However, the absolute worst thing possible happened instead.

A one-play, 75-yard prayer to Tyreek Hill from Patrick Mahomes completely changed the game. The Browns now needed a score to win this one. The Chiefs are too good to be able to hold onto a two-point lead with 10 minutes left. The Browns didn't respond after this, and ultimately let a very winnable game slip by.

Defensive Woes

The Browns lost a key member of the defense early when Ronnie Harrison was ejected for pushing a coach. Harrison needs to be more disciplined when a coach pushes him, but let's call it what it is, that ejection was outrageous.

At the end of the day, Harrison would not have won the Browns that game if he was not ejected. A very young, and inexperienced linebacking core let Travis Kelce get open across the middle every time. When that happens, the defense starts to focus on the middle of the field and allows the Chiefs to have Hill or any other weapon run open down the field.

The Browns' front seven held the Chiefs to 73 yards rushing on 23 carries and were able to at least cause Mahomes to scramble. They registered just two sacks, but the run defense was the lone bright spot for Joe Woods' defense.

Stopping the Chiefs' run game is nice, but that just means Kansas City is more inclined to pass. The Browns will need their new-look secondary — led by free-agent signing John Johnson — to play better or the defense will continue to get sliced up by premier passers. 

But Are The Browns Fixable?

Absolutely they are. This defense will get better as time goes on and with one of the easiest schedules in football, the Browns should be able to pile up the wins over inferior squads. 

The Browns have not won an opening game since 2004. We all saw how the Browns improved throughout last season and there is nothing to suggest that they will not do the same in 2021.

With how easy the Browns were moving the ball in the first half, this offense could become one of the most feared in football. The defense is loaded with talent and will be essentially adding two safeties into the mix when Grant Delpit makes his debut and Harrison plays a game without being ejected.

One thing is for sure, the Browns have the talent to win. Are they good enough as a unit to win? Not yet. 

Photo: Getty Images