NFL insider notes: Browns rediscover their identity amid drama, Patriots in thick of race and more from Week 9

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…

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