DENVER -- Ashley Lelie was missing from the Denver Broncos' offense for more than two months. The Broncos found him just in time.
Lelie made a leaping 46-yard catch to set up Jason Elam's 36-yard field goal with six seconds left, then Elam won it in overtime with a 25-yarder, leading the Broncos to a 23-20 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
"I didn't look up and go, 'there's Ashley, he's dropped some balls, I better not throw it there,"' said Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, who threw for 269 yards. "I stepped up and said, 'there's Ashley, he's going to make this catch."'
Lelie was Denver's big-play receiver early in the season, averaging 22 yards on his first 12 catches. But he caught just 14 passes for an average of 11 yards per catch over the next eight games, including just three along with several drops the last three.
Lelie's fortunes changed on Denver's final drive in regulation, when he caught three straight passes and set up Elam's tying field goal by bumping Cleveland cornerback Michael Lehan off the ball at the Browns' 17.
"They never lost confidence in me. I never lost confidence in myself," said Lelie, who finished with four catches for 71 yards. "I made a couple drops in a couple games before, but it's football. You're going to make mistakes. It's how you bounce back from it."
Denver (9-5) has won three straight and four of five to stay at least a game ahead of Miami. The Broncos hold a tiebreaker advantage over the Dolphins, who host Philadelphia on Monday night.
But it may have come with a price: Star running back Clinton Portis had to be helped off the field after spraining his right knee and ankle the play before Elam's winning kick.
X-rays were negative and he will have an MRI on Monday. Portis finished with 139 yards and two touchdowns, his sixth consecutive 100-yard game.
"We're definitely concerned about CP," Broncos linebacker Al Wilson said.
Cleveland (4-10) made Portis earn every yard -- he had a career-high 38 carries -- but it wasn't enough to prevent its fourth straight loss and seventh in eight games.
The Browns started their seventh different offensive line combination and were coming off a game in which they lost four starters, but still found a way to keep it close.
"To fight their guts the way they fought today and play every single play with the heart they played, they deserved a better fate," Browns coach Butch Davis said. "One of these days there will be a day that this character test and this hard work and this effort is going to pay off."
Cleveland seemed to be in position for the upset Brett Conway's 48-yard field goal put them up 20-17 with 1:11 left, but they left Denver with too much time to set up Elam's tying field goal.
Cleveland won the coin toss in overtime, but punted after three plays. Plummer started the winning drive with a 23-yard bootleg, and Elam closed it by raising his arms and pumping his fist to the roar of the crowd after the kick sailed through.
"I'm glad it went through. I get nervous on extra points in preseason games," said Elam, who became the first player in NFL history with 100 points in each of his first 11 seasons.
Denver opened with a 1-yard touchdown run by Portis and Elam's 51-yard field goal, but couldn't get much going after that and let another weak opponent stick around.
The Broncos missed several early scoring opportunities against Chicago on Nov. 23, leading to a 19-10 loss that left them desperate for wins to stay in the playoff race.
Denver appeared in control after Portis went through a hole on the left side for a 13-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, and Tim Couch threw an interception on the next play.
But the Browns fought back with Andre' Davis' over-the-shoulder catch for a 35-yard touchdown that tied it at 17.
"This team could have quit, but it says a lot for this team to come in and play hard against a playoff team," said Couch, who threw for 181 yards after replacing Kelly Holcomb last week against St. Louis. "We felt we had a chance to win the game, but in the end they made the plays to win."
- Denver's Shannon Sharpe, playing in what could be his final home game in Denver, had eight catches for 97 yards to become the first tight end in NFL history to eclipse 10,000 yards (10,030).
- Portis has 1,591 yards rushing to join Eric Dickerson and Edgerrin James as the only running backs to open their career with consecutive 1,500-yard seasons.
The Associated Press News Service
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