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USA Today

Kevin Stefanski will never forget his first NFL win. And he will never forget his first playoff victory, as his Browns dismantled the rival Steelers in Pittsburgh in January. But what his team did Sunday, perhaps, may resonate even more than those two milestone accomplishments.

At a time when it was becoming vogue to write off the Cleveland football team as the same 'ol Browns, or a one-year wonder, or an over-hyped outfit -- especially amid all the tumult from Odell Beckham, Jr.'s eventual departure -- Stefanski's team stepped up, played dominant football on both sides of the ball and made a declarative statement of intent about remaining a factor in the AFC North race.

You could try to diminish it, if you like, by saying it came at the expense of the Bengals. But it is precisely because of that, to me, that the victory holds more meaning. At the very time when Cincy needed to put its best foot forward after stumbling to the Jets last week, at the very time that very young team needed to restore its confidence and show that the Bengals might duplicate what the upstart Browns did a year ago, it was the Browns dominating and dictating from the opening drive.

The Browns rediscovered their identity and mojo in this 41-16 thrashing at Cincinnati, and most importantly embattled quarterback Baker Mayfield performed expertly, looked every bit the part of the leader of this group and crushed any lingering yammering about the OBJ divorce by posting a 132.6 rating against a Bengals pass defense that appeared truly elite until a few weeks ago. Second-year burner Donovan Peoples-Jones had a breakout game long presaged by his stellar training camp, becoming the new downfield threat, and the Browns got back to absolutely smothering opponents on the ground, with Nick Chubb rushing for just under 10 yards per carry on his 14 attempts.

But that was only half the story.

The Browns defense threatened to have much more bite and impact on defense this season, and my oh my did that manifest itself from the opening kickoff on Sunday. Myles Garrett continued his Defensive Player of the Year push, and he had plenty of company as the Browns continued Joe Burrow's recent string of turnover-prone play, starting with a 99-yard pick six by Denzel Ward. They picked Burrow again and took the Bengals offense off the field again early by stripping Ja'Marr Chase for a fumble recovery (the Bengals were lucky not to lose any of their other three fumbles). That fueled a 24-7 lead mere minutes into the second quarter, and the result was never in doubt.

The one-sided victory served multi-purposes, of both buttressing the Browns' playoff hopes and setting them up for an interesting second half, as well as handing the in-state rivals a second straight troubling defeat that could send them into a prolonged tailspin (take a peak at Cincy's second-half schedule).

More than anything else, it allows Mayfield to relax, it further emboldens Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry and their imprint on this franchise's turnaround, and it closes the chapter on the OBJ experiment – one that began before their arrival – with am emphatic victory that might be a springboard for more narrative-changing play to come.

Patriots suddenly very much in thick of things

Don't look now, but the New England Patriots are lurking.

Yeah, beating the slumping Panthers is no great accomplishment, but it was how they did it that portends good things. The defense was suffocating again, and they continued to flex their renewed running game, going for 151 against a solid defense. With the Bills laying an egg at Jacksonville, New England suddenly has as many wins as any team in the AFC East.

They are bringing rookie quarterback Mac Jones in a smart and timely manner and have been quite good the last six weeks, all things considered. They are 4-2 and, remember, damn near spoiled Tom Brady's return to Foxborough in that span and also lost a heartbreaker to a Dallas team that people have been in a hurry to crown all season.

The Patriots are not sexy, but they know who they are and they have one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game. The weather is turning, they are built for that time of year and they certainly seem like a team that is headed in the right direction.

Broncos too physical for Cowboys in stunner

The Broncos out-physicalled the Cowboys. Straight up. Maybe Dak Prescott should have taken another week off to further heal up, because this was the worst the Cowboys offense has looked in a long time, and full marks to the Broncos for making it happen. Denver had nearly 100 rushing yards in the first half alone, bottled up the Dallas run game, manhandled the Cowboys' array of receivers, and held the ball for 41:12(!). The score was 30-0 with less than 10 minutes to play. Not sure if this was some sort of statement game for Denver after trading Von Miller, but few in the league would have seen this coming, and it certainly makes the AFC West more interesting with the Raiders stumbling at the Giants.

More Week 9 notes

  • Make no mistake, Baltimore is a pass-first team now, its offense leads the way, its defense still has issues, and there is reason to believe that evolving pass game can take another leap. For the first time in a long time, the Ravens employed a horizontal passing attack during their comeback win over the Vikings. If Lamar Jackson can get that going at the same time he is leading the NFL in yards per air attempt, then defenses may truly be at a loss. They throw at or behind the line of scrimmage less than any other team, but repeatedly turned to receiver screens for Hollywood Brown to gouge the Vikings in the second half. They got running backs and All Pro fullback Patrick Ricard involved as well (few players in this league are dominating their position group around the league the way Ricard is reinventing the fullback spot; dude could play left tackle in a pinch). This stuff hasn't come natural to Jackson – or this offense – and he missed a few easy shots to running back Devonte Freeman early in the game, but you can see this part of the air attack emerging and forcing teams to start defensing all quadrants of the field …
  • Sam Darnold is not a starting QB in this league. He just isn't. Panthers should look at P.J. Walker, or whomever else. It was said when as many as five quarterbacks were being drafted in the first round in 2018 that at least two of them would wash out, badly, and Darnold and Josh Rosen (both top 10 picks) are doing/have done just that … 
  • Sean Payton is coaching as well as anyone in the NFL, and the Saints almost rallied for a wild comeback win over the Falcons, but losing Jameis Winston, after Drew Brees retired, might be enough to derail their playoff hopes … 
  • Quirky but true – at halftime the Bills and Jags were tied, 6-6, each team held the ball for exactly 15 minutes and had 132 yards and nine first downs. Buffalo never got anything going in the second half, and Josh Allen's turnovers proved too much to overcome in one of the more shocking upsets of the season … 
  • Aaron Rodgers had a really rough week, but Jordan Love's looked even rougher Sunday afternoon. And that was against the worst defense in the NFL. Not good. Not good. Kid is really raw, clearly, and seemed overwhelmed at times with basic game management stuff and his accuracy was brutal.