On the opening drive, coach Kevin Stefanski kept his offense on the field on fourth down. Then quarterback Baker Mayfield delivered a first-down strike, setting up a touchdown — and 2-point conversion after a Chiefs penalty — one play later.
• Are injuries turning Ravens into one-man show?
• Ready for Raiders’ ‘Inaugural Season 2.0’?
• Healthy Murray makes Cards a contender
• Bills’ message after loss? Don’t panic
• Hurts’ statement game offers Eagles hope
Cleveland aggressively kept taking it to the defending AFC champ for much of the day. Then it completely wilted down the stretch.
The resulting 33-29 loss underscored what the Browns are capable of achieving this season — and also what they still need to address to have a chance of reaching that potential.
“Very frustrating, but that’s what happens in this league,” Mayfield said of Cleveland squandering a 22-10 lead to a team that won the Super Bowl two seasons ago. “This one does sting, and it should for our guys because we were close. Just gotta finish the game. We started fast, but gotta finish.”
The start to Sunday’s season opener couldn’t have gone any better for Mayfield and the Browns. For just the second time on the road over the past 40 years, Cleveland scored touchdowns on its first three possessions, driving 75, 75 and 81 yards, respectively.
Mayfield came out on fire. In the first half, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, he went 5-of-5 passing for 101 yards against the blitz, 5-of-5 for 94 yards on play action, 4-of-4 for 61 yards and three first downs on third or fourth down, and 3-of-5 for 103 yards on throws of more than 15 yards.
But as Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes began to warm up, Cleveland started its collapse.
Chubb fumbled, setting up a Chiefs field goal. Safety John Johnson III lost track of wide receiver Tyreek Hill, allowing him to walk in for a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of Kansas City’s ensuing drive. Then, to top it all off, punter Jamie Gillan inexplicably dropped the snap, then even more inexplicably took off running with the ball.
Three plays later, the Chiefs were in the end zone again to take their first lead. The Browns wouldn’t get it back.
“We didn’t play our best when it mattered,” Stefanski said. “We didn’t coach our best when it mattered.”
Despite that disappointment, the Browns should come away from Kansas City feeling confident. They proved that they could hang — and, at times, even outplay — the primary team standing in the way of a first Super Bowl appearance.
Defensive ends Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney regularly got pressure on Mahomes, foreshadowing how devastating they could be as a pass-rushing duo. The Browns’ running game and the offensive line looked imposing once again. And Mayfield was incredibly sharp, notwithstanding the game-ending interception when he was tripped from behind while trying to throw the ball away.
Still, to topple a team like the Chiefs, the margin for error is incredibly slim. Turnovers, busted coverages and special teams miscues will be nearly impossible to overcome. The same will likely be true against AFC North rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh, as well as the Buffalo Bills.
In a 17-game regular season, the Browns have plenty of time to clean up what ailed them Sunday. Knowing that if they do, they can play with the best.