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Preston: By not believing in the Browns hype, the Ravens have instead become the darlings of the NFL

Few players wanted to admit what they were thinking, but safety Earl Thomas III couldn’t help but deliver the golden nugget four days before the Ravens were set to play the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 29.

As usual, Thomas was blunt and to the point.

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“The media was talking about OBJ [Odell Beckham Jr] and that tandem and Baker Mayfield, the next savior,” Thomas said. “Then, to add on to that, Coach [John Harbaugh] talked about it a couple of times in meetings. So guys kind of got tired about it.

“He was just talking about what it looked like on paper. And guys heard that, and basically, like, ‘It sounds good, but we’ll see.' ”

The Browns beat the Ravens, 40-25, to even their record at 2-2, and some thought that might have been the turning point for a franchise that has struggled the past 20 years.

But the Browns are still the Browns.

They have gone 4-6 since that game, and if the Ravens beat them Sunday in Cleveland, Baltimore clinches home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Wasn’t this supposed to be the Browns’ happy ending?

It’s a tale of two franchises.

NFL insiders wanted the Browns to be the league darlings in 2019 because it made for such a great story about how one of the NFL’s oldest franchises was about to return to the top. Instead, it’s the Ravens winning a second straight AFC North title.

When training camp opened, it was easy to see how both teams were considered favorites. The Ravens lost in the wild-card round to the Los Angeles Chargers last season, but had won six of their last seven to end the regular season.

Cleveland ended last season 7-8-1, but won three of their last four. They also had Mayfield, who completed 310 of 486 passes for 3,725 yards and 27 touchdowns, two more than the rookie record shared by Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson.

Mayfield appeared to be the next Manning. During the offseason, he seemed to get more endorsements than Tom Brady has during his 19 years with the New England Patriots.

And once the Browns traded for Beckham and signed former Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt to go along with Mayfield, defensive end Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward, people started penciling the Browns in as Super Bowl contenders.

But the Browns’ dismal history always causes doubt. They’ve had 11 coaches since returning to the NFL in 1999 and only two winning seasons in that time. One of the biggest criticisms coming into the season was that first-year coach Freddie Kitchens was not used to handling outspoken receivers like Beckham or Jarvis Landry. Both have complained recently about not getting enough opportunities in an offense that is ranked 19th in passing and 21st in points per game.

Kitchens, who was hired over interim coach Gregg Williams following the recommendation of Mayfield, has been knocked for his play-calling, but Mayfield seems to be in the eye of the Cleveland storm.

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Mayfield recently criticized the team’s medical staff but probably needs to spend more time dissecting his own issues. He has a passer rating of 78.7 and a completion rate of 60.1%. He has thrown as many interceptions (17) as touchdowns.

In closing moments, when he could have orchestrated game-winning drives, Mayfield failed against the Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers.

In Baltimore at the end of last season, there were a lot of fans who thought Mayfield was better than Jackson, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019.

The Ravens have won 10 straight. They made only one major change on the coaching staff, moving Greg Roman to offensive coordinator because of his experience in working with mobile quarterbacks. The Ravens are ranked first in the NFL in points and rushing yards and second in total yards. Jackson has completed 245 of 370 passes for 2,889 yards and 33 touchdowns while running 159 times for 1,103 yards and seven touchdowns.

He might not get as many commercials as Mayfield, but he’ll get his share of endorsements because he’s the hottest player in the NFL and the favorite to win the Most Valuable Player award. Jackson isn’t as arrogant as Mayfield, and the Ravens are basically free of head cases like Beckham, even though cornerback Marcus Peters and outside linebacker Matthew Judon can get goofy on occasion.

The Ravens are in complete contrast to the Browns.

Back in August, when former Ravens safety Ed Reed was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there was excitement in Cleveland about the Browns. Fans talked about them at restaurants, bars and in the airport. Maybe they could bring the city another trophy, like LeBron James did in the 2015-16 NBA season.

But the Browns can’t get out of their own way. Maybe they are jinxed, cursed or whatever. They keep getting worse in 2019 and last week gave up 299 yards in the first half before losing to the Arizona Cardinals, of all teams, 38-24.

Amazing.

Whatever Thomas was feeling in September has turned out to be true in December. It just has been reversed. The Ravens are now the talk of the NFL and Jackson is more popular than Mayfield.

And the Ravens are one victory away from securing home-field advantage in the playoffs against one of the most hyped losers in recent NFL history.

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