Browns Can Stew All Winter About What Could Have Been In Third Place Instead Of The Cellar

With his second 100-yard rushing game, free agent-to-be D'Ernest Johnson was one of the big winners in the Browns' 21-16 victory over the Bengals. (Cleveland Browns)

With his second 100-yard rushing game, free agent-to-be D'Ernest Johnson was one of the big winners in the Browns' 21-16 victory over the Bengals. (Cleveland Browns)

Browns can stew all winter about what could have been in third place instead of the cellar

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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for and 850 ESPN Cleveland.

In the end, the Bengals and Ravens shepherded the Browns to a third-place finish in the AFC North division.

Which means they can rest their weary bones and soft-tissue injuries all winter in a warm bed instead of on a cot in a cold cellar and ruminate on what could have been.

The Browns crept out of the basement with a 21-16 win over Cincinnati JV’s coupled with Baltimore’s stunning loss in overtime to the Steelers.

And so crazily ends the craziest NFL season in memory.

The Browns won third place with the same 8-9 record as the Ravens on the basis of their 3-3 record in division games vs. the Ravens’ 2-4.

The Bengals (10-7) earned the division title even though they were 0-2 against the Browns.

And 39-year-old, creaky Ben Roethlisberger willed the Steelers (9-7-1) to the AFC’s No. 7 playoff seed. It wasn't clinched, however, until the Raiders outlasted the Chargers with a field goal on the last player of overtime. A tie would have eliminated the Steelers.

The Bengals did the Browns a favor by resting all available starters after two series. Heck, they didn’t even force franchise quarterback Joe Burrow to watch on the frigid Bengals sideline. Burrow stayed warm at home in Cincinnati.

And once Ja’Marr Chase broke the Bengals franchise record for receiving yards in a season on his second catch, backup quarterback Brandon Allen was left with a roster comparable to that of a fourth exhibition game in August.

“I understand what [Bengals] coach [Zac] Taylor was doing there,” said Kevin Stefanski, whose Browns record rose to 19-14 after two years as coach. “Obviously, they are playing on. For us, our focus was on us and the guys who were out there and had to make sure we all did our job.”

On Friday, Stefanski got a jump on the traditional post-mortem player exit interviews by meeting with quarterback Baker Mayfield. Although NFL Network reported Sunday morning that all is well with coach and quarterback and the Browns intend to proceed with Mayfield under his fifth-year option guarantee of $18.8 million, Stefanski did not portray the meeting as anything more than routine.

“He is looking forward and I am looking forward for him to get the [shoulder] surgery, rest up, get healthy and all of those things," Stefanski said.

Mayfield stuck around to cheer on backup Case Keenum and the rest of his teammates from the sideline, but is not expected to participate in any interviews with media before departing to his home in Austin, TX. Mayfield will have surgery on the torn labrum in his left shoulder in Los Angeles on Jan. 19.

In Mayfield’s place, Keenum picked up his second win of the year. It wasn’t as clean as his replacement performance against Denver. He lost a fumble returned for a touchdown by the Bengals, was intercepted in the Bengals end zone on the last play of the first half, and missed Donovan Peoples-Jones on a fourth down pass from the Bengals’ 2.

Still, he managed touchdowns to Jarvis Landry (26 yards) and Demetric Felton (10) and will take a W at his age no matter the style or caliber of competition, or the consolation prize of third place vs. the basement.

“Anytime you win in this league, it is tough,” Keenum said. “I don’t care who you are playing, when you are playing or how you are playing, winning is hard. I have been around long enough to know that you enjoy the heck out of every win. It is hard to be retrospective right now and look back.

“Yeah, in the next few weeks when we are sitting at home and watching the playoff games, that is probably when it will hit a little bit more for me, knowing some of the opportunities that we passed up. It is tough. You learn, you grow and you move on. We have a lot of really good pieces to build on and a lot of guys who are really hungry and have been left with that taste in their mouth of not getting where we want to be. I think that will motivate guys for offseason workouts, for OTAs or whatever is coming this offseason to be ready to take full advantage of it next year.”

The big winners of the day were pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney and running back D’Ernest Johnson.

Clowney’s two sacks of Allen earned him an extra $250,000 in contract incentives. His season total of nine meant a cool $750,000 as opposed to the $500,000 he earned for the first seven.

Clowney was all smiles not because of the cash call, but because he had fun all season and finished the year healthy. He’s probably the No. 1 free agent GM Andrew Berry would like to retain. Clowney said it “always” comes down to money, but other factors will come into play, too, such as Myles Garrett’s personal recruiting of him and the prospect of a defense that finished in the top 5 of the league’s rankings.

“What I’m saying is that it is about money – not about the most – but it is [also] about being comfortable in the right place, the guys around you and all of that comes into play when you decide where to go,” he said.

Johnson did not start the game – Nick Chubb had nine carries for 58 yards to finish second in the NFL with 1,259 on the season and a 5.52-yard rushing average. But Johnson took over in the second quarter and finished with his second 100-yard game – 123 and a 4-yard TD on 25 carries.

Johnson, who was undrafted, can be a restricted free agent in March unless the Browns tender him a contract in the $2 million-plus range that would net a second-round pick in return if he signed elsewhere. If the Browns don’t tender him at that level, he could leave without any compensation draft pick to the Browns.

“Right now, I am just enjoying the moment and all of my teammates,” said Johnson, who is good enough to start elsewhere but is only No. 3 with the Browns behind Chubb and Kareem Hunt. “After this, I am going ot hang out with my teammates, and I will let my agent take care of all the other stuff. Right now, I am just enjoying the moment.”

Which is what Doug Dieken did at the end of the night.

The game was stopped in the second quarter when Dieken was saluted on his retirement after 51 years as Browns player and broadcaster. Play-by-play man Jim Donovan announced to the crowd that the team’s stadium radio booth would be named in Dieken’s honor.

When the stadium cleared out and the lights were dimmed, Dieken savored his last moments taking pictures on the field with his children and grandchildren.