CLEVELAND — Two statements John Dorsey made when the Browns introduced him as their general manager on Dec. 8, 2017, proved to be prophetic Sunday.
When the Browns prevailed 26-18 over the Cincinnati Bengals two days before Christmas in the home finale at a rocking, sold-out FirstEnergy Stadium, with fans chanting Baker Mayfield's first name and the rookie quarterback's teammates rushing to his defense after he took a hit on the sideline from defensive end Carlos Dunlap in the fourth quarter, the sights and sounds evoked memories of Dorsey's stated goal to "reawake this sleeping giant."
With the Browns sweeping a divisional opponent for the first time since 2007, when they went 2-0 against the Baltimore Ravens, and the Bengals for the first time since 2002 to improve to 3-1-1 in the AFC North and clinch a winning record in the division for the first time since it was formed in 2002, Dorsey's "we're going to compete in the AFC North" quote became more than hollow words.
And at 7-7-1, the Browns will have a chance in the Dec. 30 finale at Baltimore to finish a season with a winning record for the first time since 2007. Coming off last year's 0-16 dumpster fire, they already have the biggest turnaround in franchise history with a seven-win improvement.
"It’s been a long time coming. We were due for a winning team," wide receiver Rashard Higgins said. "Dorsey did a good job of putting winners on this team. That’s the biggest part of turning this thing around."
Two weeks ago after the Browns defeated the Carolina Panthers 26-20 at home, Mayfield lamented the lack of attendance and challenged fans to show up for the finale. They met his demands, and Mayfield and Co. held up their end of the bargain by putting on a show.
"We talked quite a bit about that part of it: Let’s give the fans something to rock and roll and cheer about," said Gregg Williams, whose record as interim coach improved to 5-2. "Our players were into it with them, and it was great to see the fans have a great Christmas. We talked about help giving them a gift with something like this.
"[The energy in the stadium] was outstanding, and it brought back memories to me. I'm serious. I'm thinking before the ball game this is how it was when I used to come up here in the late '80s and early '90s."
Dorsey's No. 1 overall pick in April's draft, Mayfield went 27-of-37 passing (73 percent) for 284 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, posted a rating of 121.9 and rushed six times for 16 yards (2.7 average) without taking a sack.
"It was great. Loud crowd noise. Everything you want," center JC Tretter said. "They rallied behind [Mayfield's] call. They came out in droves. It was a great atmosphere."
Mayfield's touchdown passes of 3 yards to tight end David Njoku, 1 yard to tight end Darren Fells and 17 yards to Higgins gave him 24 this season (two away from tying the rookie record held by Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson) and helped the Browns earn a 23-0 lead.
The Bengals (6-9) scored 18 fourth-quarter points to make things interesting, but on second-and-4 from the Browns 31-yard line with 2:01 left, Mayfield and Njoku connected for a 66-yard gain to seal the Browns' third win in a row and fifth victory in their past six games. After the clutch play, Mayfield stared down former Browns coach Hue Jackson on the Bengals' sideline.
The Browns finished 5-2-1 at home, their best record in Cleveland since they went 7-1 in 2007.
"People need to fear coming to Cleveland," Mayfield said. "They need to fear coming and playing around at the lake with an exciting crowd, a lot of noise and a team that's protecting their own turf."
The Browns also snapped a seven-year streak in which they finished last in the AFC North and tied their highest win total in the division (three victories in 2002 and 2007).
"When we play division opponents, they need to know exactly what they're going to get out of us," Mayfield said, "and it needs to be a game they need to prepare for every year, twice a year."
The fans weren't the only ones whom Mayfield called out recently. The Browns were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention Saturday night when the Tennessee Titans defeated Washington 25-16. Everyone could see it coming, so on Wednesday, Mayfield said any Browns players who weren't motivated to win the final two games amid dashed postseason hopes could "get out."
His teammates answered the bell.
Running back Nick Chubb had 19 carries for 112 yards (5.9 average) and set the single-season franchise record for rushing yards by a rookie, increasing his total to 972. Jarvis Landry caught four passes for 47 yards and threw a 63-yard pass to fellow receiver Breshad Perriman on a trick play to set up the Browns' second TD. Higgins and running back Duke Johnson each had six catches for 60 and 54 yards, respectively. The defense limited the Bengals to 209 yards (the Browns gained 493) and sacked quarterback Jeff Driskel three times.
"You can absolutely have guys that are going to collect their check and just show up, but we have guys that wanted to win," Mayfield said. "That showed today."
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. 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.