CLEVELAND — Turned out, the third time on goal-to-go was the charm for the Cleveland Browns.
Potentially, the season-saver, too.
After failing to punch the ball into the end zone from the Buffalo Bills’ 1-yard on two earlier possessions, Cleveland toppled the Bills in the final two minutes with Baker Mayfield’s touchdown pass to Rashard Higgins on second-and-goal, lifting the Browns (3-6) to a dramatic 19-16 victory. It also keeps alive whatever slim playoff hopes the Browns have.
Before that play, the game had been defined by Cleveland’s failures in the red zone, which have plagued the struggling Browns all season.
Up 6-0 with the chance to take a two-score lead in the first quarter, Cleveland ignominiously became the first NFL team since the 1993 New York Jets to run six plays from an opponent’s 2-yard line or closer on a possession without scoring, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Two defensive pass interference calls on the Bills defending Odell Beckham Jr. gave the Browns two extra cracks at the end zone, but Nick Chubb was stuffed on fourth-and-goal.
Two drives later, the Browns had the ball at the Buffalo 1 again, yet still couldn’t score a touchdown. Cleveland tried to go for it on fourth down from the 3-yard line, but a false start on right tackle Chris Hubbard forced coach Freddie Kitchens to settle for a field goal.
That gave the Browns the chance to win the game in the final two minutes after Buffalo took a late lead on, ironically, a 1-yard touchdown plunge. The big play on the game-winning drive came from Mayfield, who stood in the pocket and took a big shot while delivering a 24-yard dime to Jarvis Landry, who came up with the spectacular catch at the Buffalo 7.
Two plays later, Mayfield found Higgins, and Buffalo’s game-tying field goal attempt from 53 yards out fell short in the final seconds.
Promising trend: The Browns were able to utilize Chubb and Hunt out of two-back sets, answering questions about whether Cleveland would be able to play two of its top playmakers at the same time in Hunt’s season debut. Chubb, who played 80.3 percent of Cleveland’s offensive snaps, finished with 116 yards on 20 carries, including a 24-yard yard gain with Hunt as a lead blocker. Hunt, who was on the field for 57.6 percent of the Browns’ snaps, had 30 rushing yards, and was especially effective lining up at receiver with seven catches for 44 yards. Chubb came into the weekend second in the NFL averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game. Hunt was the 2017 NFL rushing champ. Together, they provide Cleveland with a different and potent dimension offensively.
Pivotal play: It might seem crazy, but Hubbard committing a false start on fourth-and-goal might actually have saved the Browns from going to overtime. Cleveland had already been stuffed on fourth-and-goal on a prior possession, and was poised to go for it again from the Buffalo 3-yard line. The Browns lined up in empty formation, before Hubbard moved early. That forced Kitchens to settle for the field goal instead, which proved to be the margin in Cleveland’s victory.
Describe the game in two words: Gut check. Cleveland’s season, more specifically its playoff hopes, would’ve been over with a loss. Despite how ugly the game was at times, Mayfield and Co. made the plays offensively down the stretch and the defense came up with the final stop to secure a win this franchise badly needed.