CLEVELAND — Baker Mayfield threw three touchdown passes to thrill a sellout, holiday-spirited crowd that came out to boo former Cleveland coach Hue Jackson. The Browns beat the Cincinnati Bengals 26-18 on Sunday and swept their southern Ohio neighbors for the first time since 2002.
Mayfield continued his stellar rookie season, one that took off after Jackson was fired by the Browns on Oct. 29. Mayfield’s 24 TD passes are the third most in NFL history by a rookie, trailing only Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson, who both had 26.
With their fifth win in six games, the Browns (7-7-1) improved to 5-2 under interim coach Gregg Williams, who has gone from long shot to legitimate candidate to become Cleveland’s next coach. It’s only the second time since 2007 the Browns have won at least seven games.
The Bengals (6-9), on the other hand, are disintegrating under coach Marvin Lewis. They lost for the sixth time in seven games and are assured of finishing last in the AFC North, a spot the Browns have occupied every season since 2011.
Cincinnati made it interesting as Jeff Driskel threw two TD passes in a two-minute stretch to get the Bengals close.
However, Mayfield connected with tight end David Njoku for 66 yards and the Browns ran out the clock. Following the long play, Mayfield jogged backward and stared in the direction of Cincinnati’s bench and presumably at Jackson, whom he called “fake” following their matchup last month in Cincinnati.
Mayfield has Browns fans convinced there are glory days ahead. The No. 1 overall pick challenged Clevelanders to fill FirstEnergy Stadium for the home finale, and they did show with a surge in ticket sales this week.
The Browns were officially eliminated from the playoffs on Saturday. That hardly dampened the enthusiasm around a team that has recovered from a 0-16 season and become one of the league’s best stories in 2018.
Mayfield’s a main reason.
In the fourth quarter, fans chanted “Ba-ker, Ba-ker” after he scampered 10 yards. Moments later, they were roaring again after Mayfield stretched to reach for a first down before being shoved hard out of bounds by defensive end Carlos Dunlap, triggering a sideline skirmish near Cleveland’s bench.
The Bengals were outmatched across the board.
Driskel, making his fourth start for the injured Andy Dalton, was sacked three times and under duress all day. He completed two passes for 3 yards in the first half, when the Bengals had minus-15 yards passing.
Browns offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens went into his bag of tricks to set up Cleveland’s second TD. On first down, the Browns ran a pass off a reverse with wide receiver Jarvis Landry threading a 63-yard pass — the ball traveled more than 50 yards in the air — to Breshad Perriman. Two plays later, Mayfield rolled right and found just enough space to throw a scoring pass to Darren Fells.
The Browns went up 7-0 on Mayfield’s 3-yard TD pass to Njoku in the second quarter.
Browns rookie Nick Chubb gained 112 yards and set the franchise rookie record for a season.
Mayfield has thrown at least one TD pass in each of his 12 starts. He trails only St. Louis’ Kurt Warner (23 from 1999-00) and Minnesota’s Brad Johnson (15 from 1996-97) for the most consecutive starts with a scoring pass to begin a career.
Bengals running back Joe Mixon came in leading the AFC in yards rushing and attempts and needing 5 yards to reach 1,000. He got them on his first carry, a 6-yard run in the first quarter. Mixon is the first Cincinnati back to reach the plateau since Jeremy Hill (2014).
Bengals: LB Vontaze Burfict played most of the first half before going out with a concussion. He came in listed as questionable with a head injury that forced him to miss practice. ... Starting CB Dre Kirkpatrick hurt his right shoulder in the first quarter and did not return.
Browns: Pro Bowl rookie cornerback Denzel Ward suffered an apparent shoulder injury in the fourth quarter. He missed the previous two games with a concussion.
Bengals: At Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Browns: Finish season at Baltimore on Sunday.