Beating the Chiefs is the next step, and Baker Mayfield's Browns weren't yet good enough to take it
Baker Mayfield was face down on the Arrowhead Stadium turf, a bad idea of a pass having just floated into the hands of Kansas City cornerback Mike Hughes, effectively ending any possible Cleveland comeback.
As waves of celebratory noise washed down on him, all the Browns quarterback could do was repeatedly slam his hands on the ground in frustration.
Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns had been strong for much of Sunday. They’d walked into Kansas City with no fear in their eyes. They’d been aggressive. They’d put the Chiefs on their heels. They scored on their first three possessions. They limited big plays on defense. They took a 12-point lead into the half and a nine-point lead into the fourth quarter.
And then they watched it all fade away via turnovers, miscues, penalties … and Patrick Mahomes.
Here it was, Kansas City 33, Cleveland 29 and there was nothing Mayfield could do now but own it.
“It’s all the little things that matter,” Mayfield said. “It’s very frustrating because they’re there. But when you play the Chiefs if you don’t execute, you lose.”
They are thinking about the Super Bowl in Cleveland, as they should. The Browns are good … at least if they can be good enough to beat Kansas City, the undeniable, unmovable force of the AFC.
On Sunday, they weren’t. Not the team. Not Mayfield.
“Critical moments,” Mayfield said. “You have to execute in critical moments. It always comes down to those three or four moments.”
“We didn’t play our best when it mattered, we didn’t coach our best when it mattered,” head coach Kevin Stefanski said. “And that’s what it takes against a really good football team.”
No one wins a championship in September. AFC supremacy doesn’t get determined on a hot day in Kansas City, although it might on a cold day there come January.
Mahomes and the Chiefs know how to win. They’ve reached three consecutive AFC title games and two Super Bowls, winning one Lombardi. And once again Sunday they showed it again.
What Tom Brady’s New England Patriots once were to them, this smart, sound, clutch, winning machine, they are to every other would-be climber in the AFC. What the Chiefs had to learn from the Pats — a single line-up-in-the-neutral-zone mental mistake can doom everything — is what Cleveland has to learn from Kansas City.
There are no shortcuts, no empty drives, no bad fumbles, no special team disasters.
“Down the stretch they were the more composed team,” defensive lineman Myles Garrett said. “We didn’t execute and they took advantage of that.”
Kansas City waited for Cleveland to crumble and then Mahomes choked them out with two touchdowns in 2:18 of game time, one a 75-yard Tyreek Hill reception, the other a 10-yard, three-play drive courtesy of a fumbled Cleveland punt. That’s all it took and it was back to last January, when Kansas City prevailed 22-17 in the divisional round against the Browns.
Sure, this was entertaining, but so what?
“If we don’t get the ‘W,’ it doesn’t matter,” Garrett said.
Mayfield went 21-of-28 for 321 yards on Sunday. He was very good. When it was winning time, he couldn’t get the Browns down the field on the final drive. He tried to do too much while avoiding a sack. He tried to make a play rather than just throw it away.
The ball was picked, the game was lost.
“Baker gets it,” Stefanski said. “He wants to win. He wants to make a play there. Tip your cap to them, they made a good play.”
“He’s a gunslinger,” Garrett said. “He’s always going to try to make that play. And I'm not mad at him at all. I'm going to ride with him every day … because he’s shown he can make those plays.”
That this game meant so much is in its own way a testament to Mayfield’s impact since becoming the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2018. This is how the Browns got here, a legitimate Super Bowl contender so quickly.
Until last year’s 11-5 season, they’d gone 16 of 17 campaigns with a losing record. That included a 1-31 stretch in 2016 and 2017. Now, the pressure is to make the next step for a title-starved fan base.
Kansas City is that next step. And the Chiefs aren’t interested in being stepped on or over.
The culprits are numerous, but it’s Mayfield who is the leader here. He sets the tone. He provides the personality. He appears in the commercials. He’s the one with the ball in his hands when the game can swing.
He certainly wants his chances on the biggest of stages.
None are bigger than in Kansas City, where the road to that long-coveted Super Bowl flows through. It’s why a Week 1 loss was more than a Week 1 loss. Cleveland can overcome it, but this will linger.
Until Mayfield can do this, until he can slay Kansas City and outduel Mahomes, there isn’t much left but pound the turf in frustration.