Winning the Mile High hard way
Gregg Williams is either a brilliant tactician when it comes to controlling a football game or the luckiest coach, interim or otherwise, in the National Football League.
With his team playing as unevenly as it has in the last month and a half and a victory practically begging to be nailed with a simple in-close field goal in the fading moments of the game, Williams bucked the odds.
The Browns held an improbable 17-16 lead over the Broncos in Denver as time ran down to the final moments of regulation with the Ghosts of the Past in this one-sided series lurking.
They forced the Broncos to take two timeouts as they drove to the Denver 10-yard line with a first down a foot away and a little less than two minutes left in regulation. Time for a Greg Joseph 28-yard field goal to take a four-point lead and force the Broncos to win the game with a touchdown, right?
Nope, Williams decided. Try to draw the Broncos offside, get the first down and go home happy. And just a millisecond before Denver rookie Bradley Chubb lurched into the neutral zone, Williams ran down the sideline and screamed for a timeout.
Mistake No. 1.
Then he disdained the field goal, opting instead to go for it with Nick Chubb, who busted out in the second half after a quiet first half, putting the game out of reach.
Chubb, who finished with 100 rushing yards, was dropped for a loss on fourth down and all of a sudden, the Broncos, who nickel-and-dimed on offense all evening, had a genuine shot at winning a game they had no business winning.
In the past, the Broncos always beat the Browns in situations such as this and it looked inevitable again as they marched quickly to midfield. Williams, meanwhile, looked calm on the sideline, almost as though he knew the eventual outcome.
The Denver drive stalled and then Williams tapped his aggressive football gene one last time, dialing up a delayed blitz by strong safety Jabrill Peppers that buried Broncos quarterback Case Keenum on fourth down.
Peppers, looking more and more like the player they spent a first-round draft pick on last season, also picked off Keenum, stepping in front of Courtney Sutton in the end zone to blunt a scoring drive late in the second quarter.
The victory was hardly what you’d call pretty. In fact, it was moderately homely, the kind of homely that usually winds up in a loss.
It all at once ended an 11-game losing streak against the Broncos, including eight in a row by the latest iteration of the team, upped their record against them to 6-23 and sent yet another message to the rest of the NFL.
The Cleveland Browns are no longer the soft spot on your schedule. Those days are over. If nothing else on an evening when they did not play well, they still won. They are rapidly learning how to put games away.
It was the first time since 2014 the Browns have won at least two road games in a season. It was also their fourth victory in the last five games, the loss in Houston a couple of weeks ago the lone blemish. And at 6-7-1, they are just one victory away from equaling their seven-win season in 2014.
In the last nearly two decades, games like this wound up in the wrong column. Ineptitude reached new lows. This victory is a clear indication games like that now will be few and extremely far between.
This was a game where Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield was not himself. Known for his terrific accuracy, the rookie was way off on his timing the better part of the evening.
He overthrew many of his targets. One could sense something was not right when he missed easy throws, the kinds of throws that have moved chains this season.
Couldn’t blame the offensive line. Mayfield had plenty of time to throw. He was dropped only once mainly due to a superb job by the line against one of the best pass rushes in the NFL
Something was off as he struggled for the first time in his young NFL career. He completed just seven of his 18 first-half passes, but did hook up with Breshad Perriman on a beautiful 31-yard back-shoulder scoring throw on the opening possession.
Maybe it was the ease with which the Browns scored that fooled Mayfield and lulled him into a false sense of security. It wasn’t the Denver defense that beat him. It was himself.
The Browns had a chance to go up 13-10 at the half, but the kid got too greedy, badly overthrowing Jarvis Landry near the goal line and was intercepted by safety Dymonte Thomas.
He was a tad better in the second half, connecting on all but two of his 13 passes for a paltry 82 yards as offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, perhaps sensing something wasn’t right, dialed it back.
It was an uphill struggle for Mayfield until the fourth quarter when cornerback T. J. Carrie picked off another Keenum throw at the Denver 48 on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Mayfield immediately rediscovered his magic monetarily and six plays later, the Browns regained the lead at 17-13 when he roped a two-yard scoring slant to fellow rookie Antonio Callaway.
Connections of 12 and five yards to Landry and a 20-yard strike to Rashard Higgins moved the Browns into position to score their 12th straight touchdown in the red zone.
The Cleveland defense, stymied by the Broncos’ seemingly slow-motion dink-and-dunk offense in the first half, surrendered their only touchdown in the first quarter, the Broncos taking advantage of a 25-yard pass interference call against Terrance Mitchell to move 88 yards in 13 plays, Keenum diving in for the score on a scramble.
The run defense, which has been AWOL most of the season, finally showed up and limited the Broncos to just 32 yards on 20 attempts, forcing Keenum to put the ball up 48 times.
That defense tightened as the Broncos, who controlled the football for nearly 33 minutes, moved closer to the Cleveland goal line, and forced three Brandon McManus field goals, the last a 29-yarder with 4:39 left in regulation.
That’s when Williams, with testosterone undoubtedly raging through him, decided that damn it, the Browns were going to win this game right now and lost all sense of clear thinking, disdaining the field goal as Browns fans no doubt sensed yet another Denver victory against Cleveland.
But this, it would appear, is not your typical 21st Century Cleveland Browns football team. Williams seemingly knows it, too, and was rewarded.