BALTIMORE — A seven-win improvement steered by the long-awaited arrival of a franchise quarterback put the Browns back on the map.

But they stumbled Sunday night in a legitimate playoff-type atmosphere, losing to the Baltimore Ravens 26-24 in the season finale at M&T Bank Stadium.

The Browns (7-8-1) have the potential to evolve into a bona fide contender as early as next season. They showed signs of that in Baltimore.

"We’re a force to be reckoned with," Browns free safety Damarious Randall said. "At the end of the day, the AFC North is going to come through Cleveland from here on out, and I’m just kind of looking forward to it. The future is bright here."

The Browns had their three-game winning streak snapped by the Ravens and failed to finish a season with a winning record for the first time since 2007, when they went 10-6.

Still, quarterback Baker Mayfield spearheaded an impressive turnaround for a team that went 0-16 last year and closed his rookie season by completing 23-of-42 passes for 376 yards and three touchdowns with three interceptions for a rating of 79.1 against the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense.

"I really just think we know what we can really do, who we can really be," Browns defensive end Myles Garrett said.

Mayfield and Co. wanted to play the spoiler role, though the Ravens (10-6) overcame the threat to win the AFC North and earn the postseason berth that goes with the division title.

"Next year, we want to be in their spot," Mayfield said.

“Obviously, we would have like to have won," Mayfield added. "But there are a lot of positives we can find from this game. Playing on the road in this kind of atmosphere, we put ourselves in a position to win. When we fell behind, we never gave up. We just kept playing hard."

The Browns trailed 20-7 at halftime but rallied in the third quarter. After their defense got a stop to open the second half and rookie receiver Antonio Callaway returned a punt 37 yards, Mayfield faked a shovel pass to running back Duke Johnson and threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jarvis Landry, who was wide open. With the score, the Browns cut the Ravens' lead to 20-14 with 12:27 left in the third quarter.

The Ravens responded with Justin Tucker's 44-yard field goal at the end of a 12-play, 49-yard drive, giving them a 23-14 advantage with 7:02 remaining in the third quarter.

It became a one-score game when Greg Joseph's 35-yard field goal trimmed the Ravens' lead to 23-17 with 13:45 left in the fourth quarter at the end of a nine-play, 60-yard drive. But Tucker answered with a 23-yard field goal on the ensuing 12-play, 78-yard march, giving the Ravens a 26-17 cushion with 7:20 remaining.

The Browns kept clawing back, though. Mayfield broke the NFL single-season rookie record for touchdown passes with a 1-yard scoring strike to Callaway, finishing a nine-play, 75-yard drive and allowing the Browns to slice the Ravens' lead to 26-24 with 3:24 left. Mayfield finished with 27 TD passes, one more than Peyton Manning (1998) and Russell Wilson (2012) had as rookies.

"It’s pretty special to me, considering some of the other guys that are on that list," Mayfield said.

The Browns got the ball back at their 26 with 1:49 left after the Ravens went three-and-out and punted. An acrobatic catch over the middle by Landry allowed the Browns to advance to the 39.

On second-and-10 from there, Mayfield threw behind Landry on an out route near the sideline, an off-target pass the QB said would haunt him because a completion would have put the Browns in comfortable field-goal range.

On fourth-and-10, Mayfield's pass over the middle intended for Johnson was intercepted by inside linebacker C.J. Mosley with 1:02 remaining, sealing the victory for the Ravens.

Interim head coach Gregg Williams said he thought about summoning Joseph to attempt a potential game-winning 57-yard field goal but ultimately decided against it.

"We put it in Baker’s hands. That was my choice," Williams said. "That’s who I wanted to see with the last opportunity."

The Browns struggled throughout the game to find answers for the Ravens' rushing attack, led by rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Ravens racked up 296 rushing yards on 47 carries (6.3 average). Jackson rushed 20 times for 90 yards (4.5 average) and two touchdowns and went 14-of-24 passing for 179 yards and a rating of 81.8.

“Lamar is a great player," Mayfield said. "He did so many great things today, running the ball and passing the ball. I think it’s going to be me versus him for a while in this division, and I am looking forward to it.”

Mayfield had a rough first half, completing 8-of-17 passes for 166 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions for a rating of 62.

Mayfield's first pass of the game was tipped by Mosley near the line of scrimmage and intercepted by cornerback Jimmy Smith at the Ravens 39. The Ravens turned the takeaway into a 3-0 lead when Tucker made a 38-yard field goal.

Mayfield threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to receiver Breshad Perriman to give the Browns a 7-3 lead with 8:22 left in the first quarter.

But the Ravens fired back immediately with a seven-play, 69-yard scoring drive, capped by a 25-yard run by Jackson, to take a 10-7 lead.

After the Ravens forced a three-and-out on three consecutive runs by rookie running back Nick Chubb, they produced a six-play, 77-yard scoring drive to make it 17-7 on an 8-yard run by Jackson.

A 35-yard field goal by Tucker at the end of an eight-play, 64-yard march made it 20-7.

After Mayfield threw another interception, the Ravens advanced to the 1, where they faced third-and-goal when Jackson tried to jump up and over the pile for a touchdown but pulled the ball back before it broke the plane. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi forced Jackson to fumble, and strong safety Jabrill Peppers recovered at the 7. Peppers started to run down the field for what would have been a defensive touchdown, but he stopped when he heard the officials whistle the play dead and declare they ruled Jackson had scored a TD.

After a replay review, Jackson's touchdown was overturned, and the Browns were given possession at their 7 with 1:50 left in the second quarter. They wanted the TD.

"That’s a big play in this game," Peppers said. "We’ve been on the short end of the stick with a lot of officiating calls this year."

The two teams traded punts late in the first half before Joseph missed a 46-yard field goal wide left as time expired in the second quarter, failing to reduce his team's 13-point halftime deficit.

The Browns made it a nail-biter, though.

"We showed how resilient we are," Mayfield said. "We fell behind, but we continued to fight, and put ourselves right back in the ball game. We can build on this."

 

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.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.