NFL Winners and Losers: Without Hue Jackson, the Browns actually look pretty good

The Cleveland Browns were 3-36-1 with Hue Jackson at coach. Since Jackson got fired, they’re 2-1.

On Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals had Jackson on the sideline in whatever title they gave him, but he was likely there mostly to feed Cincinnati information on the Browns. The Browns won 35-20 after flying out to a 35-7 lead. It was the Browns’ best performance in years. If the Bengals really would consider Jackson as a replacement for Marvin Lewis, all of that should be considered first.

Here’s what it seems like happened in Cleveland, and almost overnight: The Browns went from a bad coach to something less than bad, and suddenly look like a pretty strong team.

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The first game without Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who was also fired in late October, the Browns trailed the Chiefs 21-15 at halftime and eventually lost 37-21. The Chiefs are 9-2; there’s nothing wrong with losing to them. Then the Browns beat the Atlanta Falcons 28-16 and blew out the Bengals. The players’ icy reactions to Jackson on Sunday said a lot.

“You can put your own spin on it, but we have the same players,” Mayfield said after the game. “We have people we believe in calling the plays now.”

If you want to pour water on what the Browns are doing because the Falcons and Bengals aren’t good, that’s fine. But there are many worse teams in the NFL than Atlanta and Cincinnati, and the Browns couldn’t beat anyone under Jackson. Before Sunday they had lost 25 straight road games, one short of the NFL record.

The player who has benefited most from Jackson’s departure is Baker Mayfield, which is really damning on Jackson because he’s an offensive-minded head coach. Jackson didn’t want to start Mayfield at all this season, he said repeatedly in the offseason, and only turned to Mayfield when Tyrod Taylor got hurt. Mayfield was phenomenal on Sunday. He was 17 of 21 for 245 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. It’s the most yards for a Browns quarterback in the first half since the franchise re-entered the NFL in 1999. Mayfield ended with 258 yards and four touchdowns, and would have had some huge numbers if the Bengals were competitive. But Mayfield didn’t have to pass much in a blowout win (when’s the last time that happened for the Browns?). After Mayfield threw a touchdown to give the Browns a 35-7 lead early in the third quarter, he attempted only four more passes.

Mayfield is doing this with offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, who had never called plays in a regular-season game before he was pressed into duty following Haley’s firing. Kitchens is doing a good job, but a rookie quarterback is thriving with a play-caller who has even less experience than he does. Against the Falcons, Mayfield completed 17-of-20 passes for 216 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. His two best NFL performances, in terms of rating, have happened his past two games. After his offensive-based head coach and offensive coordinator were fired. Mayfield’s future looks really bright. He was outstanding on Sunday.

The Browns have a chance to keep this going. They’re a talented team seemingly freed from poor coaching. The only downside to a great finish might be that the Browns hire interim coach Gregg Williams instead of chasing the best available candidate. Cleveland can do better than Williams. When two-time NFL coach of the year Bruce Arians says he’d only come out of retirement to coach the Browns, that’s an indication of how attractive the job will be. There’s a really good chance, as Mayfield continues to impress and the Browns look more like a team that was being held back by Jackson, they can land just about any available coach they want. Yes, the Browns.

Cleveland isn’t in the playoff race at 4-6-1. The Browns are still in last place of the AFC North. But after going 1-15 and 0-16 the past two seasons, playoffs never should have been a realistic goal this season. Improvement had to be shown, though, and that’s happening at a rapid pace. Just wait until next offseason. With the right coaching decision, talking about the Browns and the playoffs won’t sound so weird.

Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield was all smiles in a rare Browns blowout win on Sunday. (AP)
Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield was all smiles in a rare Browns blowout win on Sunday. (AP)

Here are the winners and losers from Week 12 in the NFL:

WINNERS

Tom Brady, thanks to Rob Gronkowski’s return: Finally, Brady has a full lineup to work with.

Even Gronkowski awoke from his nearly season-long slumber, and there’s no better news for the New England Patriots. Gronkowski made a great 34-yard touchdown catch, his first score since Week 1, and the Patriots beat the New York Jets 27-13 in a game that was closer than the final score indicated.

Finally, we can see what the Patriots offense looks like. Gronkowski hasn’t been right since early in the season and missed the previous two games due to injury. He’s obviously the biggest difference-maker the Patriots have aside from Brady, and perhaps he can get hot in December and January. It wasn’t a classic Gronk performance, but it was a step forward. Sony Michel returned, too. Josh Gordon continues to progress with the Patriots and Julian Edelman looks as good as ever.

There have been question about Brady’s statistical drop this season, and they’re fair. He’s 41 years old and is nowhere near the production he had last season when he won MVP. It’s also fair to point out he had much more to work with last season. Now we should be able to see what Brady can do with all his targets back.

The arrow for Jameis Winston, which is back up: The last month-and-a-half of this season is a referendum on Winston’s future with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There’s no other way to look at it. The head coach is probably going to be gone, the general manager should be gone, but Winston is still uncertain. Not many players have been on a more extreme roller coaster than Winston.

On Sunday, he was back up.

Winston looked good. He threw for 312 yards, two touchdowns and – this is no small thing – no interceptions in a 27-9 win over the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers are a bit of a mess, but Winston has screwed up against worse teams.

There’s always an allure with Winston. His good plays are quite good. He’s capable of being a good quarterback at times. He’s just incapable of avoiding the horrible mistakes (on and off the field) that have defined him. He has a $20.9 million salary due next year, with free agency coming after that, and the Bucs have probably changed their minds a dozen times this year on what to do with him.

For one day, Winston was good without any of the silly mistakes he usually makes. If he can do that five more times before the end of the year, the Buccaneers might end up paying him.

Philip Rivers: With 6:04 left in the third quarter Sunday, Rivers threw a short pass over the middle to Austin Ekeler that was a little behind him and fell incomplete. That was the only time Rivers didn’t connect the whole game.

Rivers completed his first 25 passes, breaking Mark Brunell’s NFL record of 22 straight completions to start a game. Rivers was pulled early in a 45-10 blowout of the Arizona Cardinals, when he was 28 of 29, and he now holds the NFL record for best completion percentage in a game. The old record, with a minimum of 20 passes, was Kurt Warner’s 92.3 percent (24 of 26). Rivers’ new mark of 96.6 might last for a long time.

The Los Angeles Chargers don’t do anything easy, even on Sunday when they fell behind 10-0 right away. But at their best they are very good. Rivers is having a tremendous season, and he was nearly perfect on Sunday.

NFC East race: The NFC East isn’t good, but it’s interesting.

How’s this for drama: The Redskins and Cowboys are 6-5, and the Eagles are right behind them at 5-6. If nothing else, we should get a fun race.

The Cowboys moved into a first-place tie in the NFC East with a Thanksgiving win over Washington. The Eagles haven’t done much right this season but they’re still alive after a 25-22 win over the Giants, who we can finally bury for good this season. Everyone else in the NFC East should feel they’ve got a shot.

The Eagles have a very interesting schedule the rest of the way. Next week they host Washington on Monday night. Then they play at Dallas, play at the Rams, get the Texans at home and finish with a rematch against the Redskins. The Eagles saved their season with a big comeback on Sunday, and now we’ll get a pretty tight race to the finish.

A fat guy interception to keep the Denver Broncos’ faint playoff hopes alive: Broncos nose tackle Shelby Harris didn’t look comfortable haphazardly drifting back into coverage at the goal line, but the result was beautiful.

Harris was the Broncos’ hero in a 24-17 victory, in the most unlikely way possible. With Pittsburgh at the 2-yard line with a little more than a minute to go, looking for a touchdown to potentially tie the game or take the lead, Ben Roethlisberger tried a quick pass but didn’t expect Harris to be in the passing lane. It didn’t look like Harris was supposed to be there, either, but he drifted back after not getting any pass rush. Harris somehow intercepted Roethlisberger to seal the win. Officially in the record book, it goes down as the 290-pound Harris intercepting a pass for Antonio Brown. Go figure.

The loss is a tough one for the Steelers, who don’t have a lot of room for error if they want a first-round bye. They fell to 7-3-1. It was a huge win for the Broncos, however. Denver has now beat the Chargers and Steelers in back-to-back weeks, and is improbably still just a game out of a playoff spot at 5-6. They’re still unlikely to make it, but stranger things have happened. Like the way Sunday’s win ended.

LOSERS

Those worried about Andrew Luck’s arm strength: Earlier this season, Luck was taken out for a Hail Mary play against the Eagles. Jacoby Brissett went in to throw it. That started a debate about whether Luck’s arm still wasn’t OK after missing a season following labrum surgery. It was a fair debate. It has also been settled.

Luck keeps playing at a level that, if it weren’t for Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees, would put him in the MVP conversation. On Sunday the Colts were down 24-14 early in the fourth quarter to the Miami Dolphins, and a loss would have been crushing. Luck calmly stayed the course, throwing for 343 yards in a 27-24 win. The throw that won the game was impressive.

Luck shook himself away from the rush, stepped up and found an open Chester Rogers downfield. Luck threw a dart to him for 34 yards, setting up Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal. Rogers was wide open, but give Luck credit for finding him and getting it there. There were no issues with his arm on that play.

Luck’s comeback season has been amazing, and he keeps showing everyone he’s as good as new. Maybe better.

Joe Flacco: John Harbaugh has an interesting decision to make.

The Baltimore Ravens had to turn to Lamar Jackson when Flacco had a hip injury. In two games, a 4-5 start turned into 6-5. The Ravens are back in the playoff race, and Jackson is a big part of that. In a 34-17 win over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, Jackson had 71 yards and a touchdown rushing, and 178 yards and a touchdown passing. He also had two interceptions and a lot of his passing output came on a 74-yard play to tight end Mark Andrews, but Jackson has given the Ravens a spark.

Coaches usually don’t like changing course on a winning streak. And Harbaugh will have to weigh that the two wins with Jackson came at home against the struggling Bengals and flailing Raiders. Nobody figured the Ravens would lose either game. But Jackson has gotten the Ravens back in the playoff picture. Now Harbaugh needs to decide who’s his best option to keep pushing for the postseason.

Carolina Panthers’ grip on a playoff spot: The Panthers were 6-2 at one point, looking like the best wild-card team in the NFC. Winning the NFC South didn’t seem out of the question, either.

Then a three-game losing streak happened, and now the Panthers might not make the playoffs at all.

Sunday’s 30-27 loss to the Seattle Seahawks hurt. The Panthers led 27-20 and the Seahawks had fourth down with less than four minutes left, and Carolina still lost in regulation. Credit Russell Wilson for some enormous plays to bring home the victory, but the Panthers screwed some things up.

Early in the game, the Panthers went for it on fourth-and-2 at the Seahawks’ 5-yard line. They ran Cam Newton straight ahead and he was stopped short (although the spot looked like a bad one). The Panthers could have taken a field goal, and those were three points they could have used later.

The Panthers still could have put the game away late. They allowed Wilson to complete a 35-yard touchdown pass on a great catch by David Moore on fourth-and-3. Graham Gano missed a 54-yard field goal that would have given the Panthers the lead. Then on third-and-5 with about a minute to go they allowed a 43-yard catch to Tyler Lockett. That’s how you blow a game.

The Panthers still have six wins in the bank and could rebound from a three-game losing streak to get a wild-card spot. But that doesn’t look like the lock it once did.

Doug Marrone: At the end of the 2014 season, Marrone used a loophole in his contract to opt out and collect $4 million. He quit on the Bills. It was pretty bad, even in the cold bottom-line world of the NFL.

On Sunday, Marrone showed the Bills they’re better off anyway.

It’s possible nobody in the NFL other than Hue Jackson has done a worse job coaching this season than Marrone. He took a team that went to the AFC championship game last season, seemingly got a bit better in the offseason, and is now 3-8 after a horrible 24-21 loss to the Bills. Marrone wore a sweatshirt that said “BOLD CITY” on it during the game, which is laughable given his conservative game plans all season (he gave away a win against the Steelers in Week 11 by going into a shell, just like he did in the AFC title game last season).

The Jaguars don’t seem interested in firing Marrone, though more losses like Sunday should give them second thoughts. The people in Buffalo probably won’t feel bad if he lost his job.

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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