Browns top Colts to move to 4-1, best start since 1994
CLEVELAND — The Browns used two touchdown passes by quarterback Baker Mayfield, a defensive touchdown and a safety to improve to maintain their momentum under first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski.
With Sunday's 32-23 win over the Indianapolis Colts, the Browns improved to 4-1 for the first time since 1994, when they produced a 6-1 start to the season under coach Bill Belichick.
The Browns have won four games in a row for the first time since they ended the 2009 season on a four-game winning streak under coach Eric Mangini.
They hadn't defeated the Colts since Sept. 18, 2011, when Cleveland prevailed 27-19 in Indianapolis. The Browns had lost the previous three meetings.
The Colts (3-2) posed a serious threat and brought the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense to FirstEnergy Stadium, where the attendance was 12,000, double the amount allowed by the state of Ohio for each of the first two home games due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Mayfield finished 21-of-37 passing for 247 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions for a passer rating of 72.7. The Colts battered him late in the game, but the Browns held on to grind out the win, despite being without Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb, who will be out for several weeks with the knee injury he suffered in last week's 49-38 win over the Dallas Cowboys.
Quarterback Philip Rivers fell to 5-3 as a starter against the Browns. He went 21-of-33 passing for 243 yards with two interceptions for a passer rating of 60.5.
The Browns jumped out to a 27-10 lead after strong safety Ronnie Harrison cut in front of receiver T.Y. Hilton, intercepted a short pass from Rivers and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown with 12:15 left in the third quarter.
But the Browns were caught snoozing on the ensuing kickoff. Isaiah Rogers returned it 101 yard for a touchdown, allowing the Colts to trim their deficit to 27-17 with 12 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Instead of answering, the Browns gave the ball back to the Colts when Mayfield was intercepted by linebacker Bobby Okereke with 9:13 left in the third quarter. Okereke returned 7 yards, and the Colts took over at the Cleveland 48.
The Colts turned the takeaway into three points and cut the Browns' lead to 27-20 with 3:58 left in the third quarter. Rodrigo Blankenship made a 37-yard field goal at the end of the 10-play, 29-yard drive.
After the Browns stalled on offense partly because Pro Bowl receiver Jarvis Landry had his first of two dropped passes in the fourth quarter, Jamie Gillan punted to the Indianapolis 4.
On the next play, defensive end Myles Garrett beat left tackle Le'Raven Clark, who started in place of the injured Anthony Castonzo, and hit Rivers in the back of the end zone. Rivers threw the ball, but he was penalized for intentional grounding, resulting in a safety and a 29-20 advantage for the Browns with 14:39 left in the fourth quarter.
The Browns then went three-and-out, with Landry's second uncharacteristic drop popping up on third down.
But on third-and-6 from the Indianapolis 39, Rivers intended a pass over the middle for tight end Mo Alie-Cox, and safety Sheldrick Redwine intercepted it and returned 8 yards to the Colts 49 with 11:24 remaining in the fourth quarter. Redwine didn't play a defensive snap in the first four games thiss season, but he filled in for Harrison, who was evaluated for a concussion. A Sept. 3 trade acquisition, Harrison made his first start with the Browns because strong safety Karl Joseph was inactive with a hamstring injury.
The Browns failed to capitalize on Redwine's takeaway, though.
On third-and-3 at the Indianapolis 31, Mayfied was hit by defensive end Justin Houston as he threw a pass intercepted by linebacker Anthony Walker with 7:05 left in the fourth quarter. Mayfield was shaken up as a result of the hit he absorbed from Houston. He went to the medical tent, but he returned for the start of the next series.
The Colts turned Mayfield's second interception of the game into Blankenship's 25-yard field goal at the end of a 12-play, 63-yard drive. The successful kick sliced the Browns' lead to 29-23 with 2:50 left in the fourth quarter.
With Mayfield looking less than 100% healthy, the Browns relied on the run during the next series. On third-and-9 from the Cleveland 43, running back D'Ernest Johnson broke loose for a crucial 28-yard rush. Cody Parkey ended the eight-play, 40-yard drive with a successful 46-yard field goal, giving the Browns a 32-23 cushion with 21 seconds left to play.
There simply wasn't enough time for the Colts to come back.
The Browns scored 10 unanswered points in the second quarter to capture a 20-10 halftime lead.
After defensive end Olivier Vernon hit Rivers on an incomplete third-down pass and the Colts resorted to Blankenship's 32-yard field goal for a 10-10 tie with 10:15 remaining in the second quarter, the Browns went on a run.
Mayfield found wide receiver Rashard Higgins open in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown pass. Higgins had been a healthy scratch in the previous two games, but his first TD reception of the season finished a nine-play, 75-yard drive and allowed the Browns to seize a 17-10 lead with 5:58 left in the second quarter.
The Browns held the Colts to a three-and-out on the next series, with Harrison breaking up a third-down pass from Rivers to tight end Jack Doyle.
Then the Browns moved 64 yards in 11 plays, and Parkey made a 36-yard field goal to give them a 20-10 advantage with 13 seconds left in the first half. A play after wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. threw an 18-yard pass to tight end Austin Hooper on a trick play earlier in the series, cornerback Xavier Rhodes helped the Browns by dropping a would-be interception on a high pass Mayfield intended for rookie tight end Harrison Bryant.
Colts coach Frank Reich and Browns coach Kevin Stefanski had gambles pay off on back-to-back series.
During their first possession, the Colts faced fourth-and-2 at the Cleveland 4, and Reich decided to go for it instead of settling for a field goal. On a misdirection play, rookie running back Jonathan Taylor rushed to the left for a 4-yard touchdown, allowing the Colts to finish the nine-play, 72-yard march by seizing a 7-3 lead with six minutes left in the first quarter.
It didn't take long for Stefanski to take his turn. On fourth-and-1 at the Indianapolis 5, he went for it, and Mayfield and Beckham connected for 3 yards and a first down.
Then on third-and-goal, Mayfield found running back Kareem Hunt in the back of the end zone. Hunt outmaneuvered safety Khari Willis and caught a 2-yard touchdown pass, capping a 14-play, 81-yard drive and letting the Browns go ahead 10-7 with 14:06 left in the second quarter.
Before Reich rolled the dice, the Browns went ahead 3-0 during the game's opening possession. Parkey made a 24-yard field goal with 10:24 left in the first quarter after Mayfield missed Beckham in the back left corner of the end zone on third-and-goal from the 6.