Browns quick hits: Cleveland finishes disappointing season strong with sweep of AFC North champ Bengals

Nate Ulrich
Akron Beacon Journal

CLEVELAND — The only thing worse than finishing a season of unmet expectations is ending it in defeat instead of victory.

The Browns went out in strong fashion with a 21-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Cleveland's season finale Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.

A year after the Browns went 12-6, including 1-1 in the playoffs, in their first season with coach Kevin Stefanski at the helm, they finished with a record of 8-9 and have the 13th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft

The finale became meaningless for the Browns when they were eliminated from playoff contention on Jan. 2, the same day the Bengals (10-7) won the AFC North by upsetting the Kansas Chiefs 34-31 at Paul Brown Stadium.

Yet the Browns swept the Bengals for the second consecutive season. Cleveland also prevailed 41-16 on Nov. 7 in Cincinnati. It's the first time the Browns have swept the Bengals in back-to-back seasons since 1993-94.

With the playoff-bound Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1) triumphing 16-13 over the Baltimore Ravens (8-9) in overtime Sunday, the Browns placed third in the division for the second year in a row. 

Stefanski played Cleveland's healthy starters in the finale, but what's more relevant is how the Browns move forward from a massively disappointing 2021 in hopes of returning to the playoffs next season.

Cleveland Browns running back D'Ernest Johnson (30) dives into the end zone to score a trouchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Cleveland, Ohio. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

The No. 1 question the franchise faces in the offseason is what it'll do at quarterback.

Baker Mayfield was on Cleveland's sideline Sunday during the game, but the starting quarterback didn't play because he had been shut down last week as he awaits Jan. 19 surgery on the completely torn labrum he suffered in his left, non-throwing shoulder in Week 2. Mayfield's rehabilitation is expected to take four to six months. 

In Mayfield's absence, backup quarterback Case Keenum went 17-of-24 passing for 176 yards and two touchdowns with an interception for a rating of 102.1 against reserve defenders. Meanwhile, the Bengals rested franchise quarterback Joe Burrow and most of their other offensive starters for the postseason, turning to backup Brandon Allen, who finished 15-of-29 passing for 136 yards and a touchdown without an interception for a rating of 76.2.

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield signs autographs for young Browns fans before a game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Cleveland.

Mayfield had a miserable 2021 season while playing hurt, and it became even uglier when he publicly criticized Stefanski's play calling twice in the last month.

But Mayfield and Stefanski met Friday and were on the same page about moving ahead together and working out any issues that exist, a person familiar with the situation said Sunday morning.

After the game, Stefanski said he wanted to knock out Mayfield's standard exit meeting on Friday instead of waiting until Monday, when many other players will be talking to the coach. 

Asked if Mayfield left on a positive note, Stefanski said, "Oh, yeah. Yes. Yeah. He's looking forward and I'm looking forward for him to go get the surgery, rest up, get healthy all those things."

Fox sideline reporter Lindsay Czarniak said during Sunday's telecast she had spoken to Mayfield on the field before the game. Czarniak said Mayfield told her he recently had great conversations with Browns coaches and staff members about his plans for the future, he'll wear a sling for about six weeks after his surgery and he hopes to be able to return to work by late April.

NFL Network first reported Mayfield's exit meeting with Stefanski went well. The network's report states the Browns will head into the offseason with plans to retain Mayfield, who is under contract through the 2022 season for $18.858 million guaranteed as a result of General Manager Andrew Berry exercising the fifth-year option in the player's rookie contract this past April.

Did Stefanski and Mayfield discuss the QB's status for next season and plans for him still being the Browns' starter?

"Obviously, those type of meetings are between me and the players," Stefanski said. "I think a lot of times those exit meetings are where they are, where their health is, where they're going, what we can do better, all those type of things."

Even though there is a path forward for Mayfield and the Browns, everything could still change in the offseason if the Browns acquire an obvious replacement. Landing a clear-cut upgrade isn't expected to be easy in an hyper-competitive trade market, though, so retaining Mayfield and adding competition for him seems like a more realistic approach than making a huge splash at QB.

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Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots talks to Mac Jones #10 against the Philadelphia Eagles in the first half of the preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field on Aug. 19, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Patriots defeated the Eagles 35-0. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images/TNS) ORG XMIT: 33799043W

Cleveland Browns 2022 opponents

No matter who starts at quarterback for the Browns next season, the organization knows which teams it'll encounter.

Next season, the Browns will host the New England Patriots, New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Los Angeles Chargers, plus the three other teams in the AFC North.

In 2022, the Browns will visit the Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and the Washington Football Team in addition to their division foes.

The NFL will release next season's schedule with the dates and times of games in the spring.

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Cleveland Browns running back Demetric Felton (25) rushes for yards as he is brought down by Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Clay Johnston (44) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Cleveland, Ohio. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

Cleveland Browns rookie Demetric Felton scores crucial touchdown against Cincinnati Bengals

In the meantime, Stefanski wanted the Browns to end their season on a high note. His players held up their end of the bargain.

Defensive end Myles Garrett's career-high 16th sack of the season pushed the Bengals back 7 yards and led them to settle for Elliott Fry's 36-yard field goal and a 14-10 deficit with 5:01 left in the third quarter. Fry's kick was an adventure because the ball bounced off the crossbar and through the uprights.

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The Browns found themselves on the doorstep of the end zone during the ensuing possession, but they had a turnover on downs.

Stefanski chose to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 2. Keenum threw a bit behind wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, and the pass fell incomplete in the end zone with 14:13 remaining in the fourth quarter.

The Browns defense responded with a three-and-out. Nickelback M.J. Stewart Jr. broke up Allen's pass intended for receiver Mike D. Thomas on third-and-9, forcing a punt with 13:25 left to play.

Peoples-Jones fumbled as he returned the punt, but cornerback A.J. Green recovered for the Browns at the Cincinnati 46-yard line with 13:14 remaining.

Ten plays later, Keenum finished a 46-yard drive by throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass to rookie Demetric Felton on a receiver screen. The Browns captured a 21-10 lead with 7:14 left.

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However, the Bengals weren't done scratching and clawing.

On fourth-and-1, Allen connected with running back Chris Evans for a 4-yard touchdown with 2:26 remaining. Allen's 2-point pass failed, so the Bengals trailed 21-16, which became the final score.

The ensuing onside kick proved to be dramatic. Browns tight end Harrison Bryant missed a chance to field the kick cleanly, and Green was ultimately credited with the recovery after a pile formed and players, including Bryant and Stewart, fought for possession.

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry (80) makes a catch during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Nick Cammett)

Cleveland Browns earn 14-7 halftime lead vs. Cincinnati Bengals

The Browns drew first blood on the sixth series of the game when Keenum and five-time Pro Bowl receiver Jarvis Landry connected for a 26-yard touchdown with 56 seconds left in the first quarter. Bengals cornerback Tre Flowers fell at the 4-yard line, allowing Landry to run by him with the ball and into the end zone. The played capped a six-play, 79-yard drive, and the Browns went ahead 7-0.

Landry compiled six catches on eight targets for 75 yards and a TD in what might have been his final game with the Browns, who will face a decision in the offseason about whether to bring the veteran back for the final year of his pricey contract or release him in a cost-cutting move.

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The Browns scored on their next possession, too. Third-string running back D'Ernest Johnson finished a six-play, 58-yard drive by rushing for a 4-yard touchdown with 11:22 left in the second quarter. Chubb started and had nine carries for 58 yards (6.4 average) with a long of 35. An ankle injury sidelined backup running back Kareem Hunt for the fourth consecutive game.

Two plays before Johnson's TD, Landry caught a 13-yard pass from Keenum and took a helmet-to-helmet shot from safety Ricardo Allen, who drew a 12-yard unnecessary roughness penalty and suffered a concussion.

Johnson had 25 carries for 123 yards (4.9 average) and a touchdown.

Browns quarterback Case Keenum (5) celebrates with guard Joel Bitonio (75) after a scoring drive during the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Cleveland.

Bengals score defensive touchdown off Case Keenum fumble to cut Browns' lead in half

Two Keenum turnovers changed the complexion of the game in the final minutes of the first half.

Keenum was strip-sacked by defensive end Wyatt Ray, and safety Trayvon Henderson recovered the fumble and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown. The score allowed the Bengals to trim their deficit to 14-7 with 3:28 left in the second quarter.

On the previous series, Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney strip-sacked Allen, but Clowney missed a chance to recover the fumble as he attempted to scoop it off the ground. Tight end Drew Sample recovered for the Bengals with 5:46 remaining in the second quarter.

Keenum had a chance to compensate for his lost fumble late in the first half, but the second quarter ended with Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton intercepting a Keenum pass in the end zone after linebacker Markus Bailey deflected it.

Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski has a word with quarterback Case Keenum (5) during the first half Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Cleveland.

Nate Ulrich can be reached at