The Sound of Being Significant

Nick Wass/AP Photo

You could tell this game mattered, more than anything, because of the sound. This game didn’t strike your ear in the same way that the 2016 or 2017 season finale did. The late-afternoon crowd produced a big-fight feel. CBS’s top announcing team was on the call. Eyes were on this thing. The lines coming out of Jim Nantz’s mouth in the last two minutes indicated that this was a contest worth caring about.

While Jarvis Landry’s rolling, sticky-fingered grab was under review: “The entire AFC North story is going to be told in the last minute thirty-five.”

With some pep in his voice, after review indicated that Landry indeed corralled the pass: “It’s a catch!

Shortly thereafter, when the telecast showed a full Heinz Stadium hoping for a Browns victory: “The whole NFL is watching.”

It ended in defeat, but you guys: The Browns are a franchise of consequence, and in more than three area codes. They couldn’t rally back to beat the Ravens in Baltimore, but they landed some good punches. Baker Mayfield threw three touchdowns and wasn’t sacked. The Browns put 426 yards on the fearsome Ravens. The No. 1 defense in the league! The Ravens! In Baltimore!

I understand if people want to jump forward to 2019, when the Browns may well be favorites(!) to win(!!) the division(!!!), but let’s not gloss over the present. Don’t just trust the process—enjoy the progression.

This Week 17 was not like the past few have been. That much is self-evident for any number of reasons. Most importantly and most obviously, the Browns didn’t have to immediately pivot to Quarterback Search Mode once the clock struck zero. They’ve got a guy.

Even with the three interceptions, Baker Mayfield had the best game against the Ravens since 50-touchdown man Patrick Mahomes. Mayfield set the NFL’s all-time rookie touchdown record. He completed passes of 48, 42, 40, 38 and 28 yards. He made mistakes, but I’d bet he made Baltimore fans nervous, too. I’ll take it.

Don’t just trust the process—enjoy the progression.

Again: The Browns were competitive in a meaningful game against a division opponent. While the playoff berth in the balance wasn’t theirs, there’s no denying that the stakes added to the theater. The whole thing had a prime-time vibe, right down to the timbre of the crowd.

I was struck while listening to the ruckus at M&T Bank Stadium. The decibel level would have been high regardless of opponent considering the playoffs were on the line, but I took the Ravens fans’ full-throatedness as respect for the Browns. These weren’t the usual dopes in the orange helmets. This was a team worth screaming at. And in that environment, the Browns committed precisely zero second-half penalties. Only four for the game.

We’ve edged into moral victory territory, sure, but we’re well past the anything-else-is-gravy portion of the program. The Browns finished the season with seven wins, more than they had over the past three campaigns combined. They’re creative, they’re athletic, they’re exciting. They started the season going toe to toe with the Steelers and ended it trading punches with the Ravens. Who wouldn’t have signed up for that six months ago?

Zoom out, and the outlook remains sunny. In John Dorsey they have a GM who seems exceedingly competent. The front office appears to have nailed a good chunk of the last draft. They have young studs and piles of cash to work with. A foundation has been set, and construction is ahead of schedule.

The name on the door of the head coach’s office remains a significant variable. Reports suggest Gregg Williams either does or doesn’t have a real shot at keeping the job. Baker Mayfield seems to have given an endorsement to keeping Freddie Kitchens in some capacity. History suggests none of us has a clue who should get the gig, and all rumors on the subject should be taken with salt anyway, as John Dorsey has proven a sly poker player. (Or maybe Condi still has a shot at this thing!)

The Haslams are still in charge, as they were from 2012 to 2017, during which time the Browns went a particularly bad version of 20-76. There is always, always, always reason for skepticism in Berea. But after a season like this, a little benefit of the doubt is earned, and that feels nice. Maybe Jimmy and Dee are figuring this thing out. We can hope, at least, without feeling like complete putzes.

Ending the season with a loss is nobody’s idea of success, but the Cleveland Goddamn Browns, a year removed from a winless season, held their own in an important Week 17 game. A game that the country cared about. A game that mattered. And the cherry on top, of course, is that the Browns’ loss put the Steelers out of the playoffs. Silence in Heinz Field: Music to any Browns fan’s ears.

Even in defeat, the Browns have let it be known that their voices will be heard in the years to come. Get used to it.