Gregg Williams often points out when something makes him smile, and the faith the Browns have in themselves right now is a source of happiness for their interim coach.
"It’s fun for me to be involved with these young guys here getting a chance to believe in themselves, and it really kind of sparks me to see the flash in their eyes, the strut in their step and the confidence in their body language when they get a chance to put everything together," Williams said during a conference call Monday with the Browns basking in the afterglow of Sunday's 26-20 home win over the Carolina Panthers.
The Browns (5-7-1) are playoff long shots, but the fact that they're still mathematically alive with three regular-season games remaining illustrates how much progress they have made since they went 1-15 in 2016 and 0-16 last year.
There are so many differences between the 2018 Browns and those previous versions, but no one has instilled confidence in the franchise as much as rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield.
"An awful lot of it does come from him, and that would not happen if it was phony," Williams said. "It only happens when everybody sees it be sincere."
Mayfield finished 18-of-22 passing (three balls were dropped) for 238 yards and a touchdown without an interception, posted a rating of 126.9 and took one sack to lead the Browns to their third victory in the past four games.
The No. 1 overall pick in April's draft is 4-6 as a Browns starter and has completed 64.4 percent of his passes this season for 2,877 yards and 19 touchdowns with 10 interceptions for a rating of 93.4.
"It doesn’t shock me, no," Williams said of Mayfield's strong rookie season. "He has worked extremely hard for this success. It’s not something that’s just happened by happenstance. The amount of work that he puts in, doesn’t shock us that he also takes it to the ball game because he works extremely hard to have an overall understanding of every aspect of the game."
The talent is evident, too. Facing the Panthers (6-7) in temperatures recorded in the high-20s, Mayfield completed a 66-yard pass to wide receiver Breshad Perriman on the offense's first play and a 51-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jarvis Landry in the second quarter.
"His arm strength is outstanding," Williams said. "His accuracy is outstanding, and it probably won’t be hidden anymore after that first play of the game because that was a rocket and that was a long throw. And it’s a long throw on the money. In practices, we’ve seen longer throws, and we’ve seen even more accurate throws that other people haven’t seen yet."
For his next act, Mayfield will try to lead the Browns to a prime-time road win Saturday night against the Denver Broncos (6-7).
The Browns had their playoff hopes buried with last week's 29-13 loss to the Houston Texans, but those aspirations were buried alive. For the Browns to scratch and claw their way to the surface and emerge with an improbable postseason berth, they must win their final three games and receive ample help from other teams.
The thought is fueling them.
"People are supposed to be motivated at this level," Williams said. "That’s how you keep your job. But the pride factor of seeing that possibility still there does help."
Not that the Browns are close to as good as the New Orleans Saints were during the 2010 season, when Williams coordinated their defense to a Super Bowl win, but the veteran coach detects a familiar sense of belief developing within the organization.
"[We] see those glimpses of the beginning of that," Williams said. "We’re not near there yet. It’s not even close to being there yet, but we have talked about the similarities."
Mayfield knows as well as anyone the Browns have not arrived.
"We still have a losing record, but we're moving forward," he said shortly after defeating the Panthers. "There has been a lot of change, but this is a process. For a culture to change and for a franchise to change, it's a process, and it's a lot of work.
"You can’t be satisfied and say, 'Oh, we have changed it.' No, we're not there yet."
• Rookie cornerback Denzel Ward (concussion) was inactive against the Panthers but could return to face the Broncos. "Yes, I hope from a [concussion] protocol standpoint that he's advancing pretty good in that," Williams said. "I haven't heard today yet, though."
• Starting center JC Tretter played every snap against the Panthers despite having his ankle rolled up on again. Tretter has been fighting through a high-ankle sprain since Oct. 14, and Williams expects him to continue to do so in Denver. "I would be shocked if he doesn't just exert his will, saying, 'I'm playing,' " Williams said.
• Williams doesn't have any qualms about offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens calling a double pass on first-and-10 from the Panthers 31-yard line with two minutes left in the second quarter. Landry launched a pass intended for rookie running back Nick Chubb that the Panthers broke up in the end zone. The Browns wound up kicking a 49-yard field goal to end the series and were tied with the Panthers 17-17 at halftime. "Some people would hold your breath on those type of things, but we're going to be aggressive, Williams said.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his Browns coverage at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByNateUlrich and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.