December is halfway over and the Cleveland Browns are still alive in the AFC North. To survive elimination on Saturday night, the Browns went into Denver and snapped their 11-game losing streak to the Broncos, securing their first win over the Broncos since 1990. In a flag-filled game dominated by both defenses, which induced turnovers in key moments, the Browns emerged with an ugly 17-16 victory that pushed their record to 6-7-1.
Baker Mayfield struggled for most of the night, but threw two touchdowns, including the game winner. Nick Chubb was shut down for three-and-a-half quarters, but still crossed the 100-yard threshold thanks to a key 40-yard run late in the fourth quarter as the Browns tried to ice the game. And the Browns' defense induced two huge Case Keenum turnovers, held Phillip Lindsay to 24 yards on 14 carries, and got two crucial stops in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Leading the way was safety Jabrill Peppers, who recorded an interception in the end zone and the game-winning sack.
And so, the Browns still have hope. They still need to Ravens, who hold the sixth seed in the AFC, and there are a whole host of teams positioned between them and the Ravens.to win the AFC North, but they're alive. For a team that won one game over the past two seasons, simply being alive at this point in the calendar should be considered a resounding success. Having hope alone halfway through December is an accomplishment in and of itself. The Broncos, on the other hand, are likely dead, even though they've yet to be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. At 6-8, they're now two losses behind the 7-6
The game couldn't have started any worse for the Broncos and any better for the Browns. The Broncos lost 13 yards on an opening three-and-out. The Browns scored a touchdown in four plays.
The Broncos finally pieced together a drive their third go-around, tying the game at 7-7 with a Keenum scramble that barely escaped the clutches of Myles Garrett. Midway through the second quarter, the Broncos took a 10-7 lead after Keenum dinked and dunked his way to a 61-yard drive. At that point in the game, the Broncos owned nearly an 11-minute advantage in the time of possession battle and had racked up 30 plays compared to the Browns' 13. The Browns finally sustained a long drive of their own and tied the game at 10-10, a scoreline that remained in place until the second half after both quarterbacks exchanged ugly interceptions in enemy territory at the end of the second quarter.
Mayfield's second turnover of the game (this time a fumble) on the first series of the second half led to the Broncos kicking a go-ahead field goal. But Keenum made sure he kept up in the turnover race with his second interception early in the fourth quarter, which gave the Browns the ball on the plus side of the 50. Sure enough, the Browns took the lead six plays later with Mayfield's second touchdown. The Browns led 17-13 with just under 12 minutes to go even though Mayfield was submitting an uneven at best outing. The Broncos' offense just happened to be just as bad.
And then, suspect coaching decisions became the story. First, Broncos coach Vance Joseph oddly decided to kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the 6-yard line (which became fourth-and-6 from the 11 after a delay of game penalty) to trim the lead to 17-16 with under five to play. As expected, the cowardly decision backfired. Chubb ripped off a 40-yard run followed by a nine-yard run a couple plays later. With 1:53 left, the Browns faced a fourth-and-inches from the 10-yard line.
Unlike Joseph, Browns interim coach Gregg Williams made a ballsy decision. He kept his offense on the field instead of kicking a field goal to extend a one-point lead to four points and leave the Broncos with hope. And it should've worked. Except that, just before Mayfield drew a neutral-zone infraction with a hard count, which would've resulted in a game-ending first down, Williams raced down the sideline to call a timeout. The officials granted the timeout just before the neutral-zone infraction occurred, negating what would've been a penalty.
When they go for that last fry pic.twitter.com/2zk8pMYGnI— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) December 16, 2018
After the timeout, the Broncos stuffed Chubb.
But the Broncos' offense couldn't do their part, failing to make it past midfield. On fourth-and-10 from midfield, Peppers blitzed and took down Keenum to end the game.
That sack didn't just win the Browns the game. It also kept them relevant heading into Sunday of Week 15.
After countless lifeless seasons, the Browns have a pulse, which they maintained by earning a win over a team they hadn't beaten since 1990.
Mayfield has rough night
Against a Broncos defense that ranked fourth in DVOA heading into the week, Mayfield went 18 of 31 for 188 yards (6.1 yards per pass), two touchdowns, one interception, one lost fumble, and an 83.8 passer rating. Mayfield struggled for most of the night with both his accuracy and decision making, and appeared to be at least somewhat bothered by the Broncos' pass rush. But he started and finished strong.
After the Browns' defense set up the offense with great field position at the onset of the game, Mayfield hit Jarvis Landry for a 19-yard gain before finishing off the quick scoring drive with a 31-yard touchdown to Breshad Perriman on third-and-9. All 31 of those yards came in the air.
Mayfield has now thrown at least one touchdown in all 11 of his starts.
But he struggled for the remainder of the first half. While he displayed tremendous patience on a third-and-13 at the end of the first quarter ...
… he also misfired on downfield throws and saw a couple of his passes get tipped at the line of scrimmage. At halftime, Mayfield's inaccuracy was reflected by his 38.9 completion percentage (7 of 18), and his interception late in the half came as a result of forcing the ball to a predetermined read that never gained separation and a high throw that floated into the arms of the safety lurking over the top.
On the other side of the break, Mayfield threaded perfectly placed darts into tight coverage for third- and fourth-down conversions, but gave the ball away again, this time with a fumble. It was the Broncos' first sack of the night, but pressure played a role in Mayfield's struggles for most of the night.
Mayfield found a way to manufacture one more touchdown, though. After Keenum gave the Browns life with a terrible interception, Mayfield responded with a nice sideline throw to Rashard Higgins followed by his second touchdown of the game, which went to fellow rookie Antonio Callaway.
CALLAWAY FOR SIX‼️ pic.twitter.com/WRsO9y2lOK— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) December 16, 2018
Even at his worst, Mayfield still delivered a game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. But he was only in a position to do so because of his defense.
Keenum's turnover issues reappear
Over the Broncos' past five games entering Saturday night, Keenum had thrown only five touchdowns, but more importantly, zero interceptions after getting picked off 10 times in the first eight games of the season. Without Emmanuel Sanders against a Browns defense that has generated the second-most takeaways in football, Keenum went 31 of 48 for 257 yards (5.4 yards per pass), no touchdowns, two picks, and a 60.8 passer rating.
After the Browns took a 7-0 lead, Keenum tied the game with a scramble from the 1-yard line, barely escaping the outstretched arms of Garrett.
Keenum spent most of his night dumping off the ball underneath, but his interception-less streak ended late in the first half when he forced a deep ball into the end zone, where two Broncos receivers attracted the attention of four Browns defenders. Peppers picked off the pass, robbing the Broncos of a chance to break the tie heading into halftime.
It's a throw Keenum couldn't make given the Broncos were already in field goal range, but Courtland Sutton also could've done more to help his quarterback by breaking up the interception.
Keenum made another terrible mistake in the first minute of the fourth quarter. After the Broncos' defense stymied the Browns' offense once again, Keenum came out and forced a ball downfield that wound up in the arms of T.J. Carrie. Suddenly, only down by three, the Browns' offense had the ball in Broncos' territory. They would go on to turn that turnover into the game-winning touchdown.
It was another throw Keenum couldn't make in that situation.
Not helping matters was that the Broncos couldn't get their running game going. As a team, the Broncos rushed for 32 yards on 20 carries.
Reminder: Keenum threw 48 passes in what was always a one-score contest.
Browns turnover tracker
Only the Bears have generated more takeaways than the Browns this season. They got two more on Saturday to push their total to 30.
Now 11 players after that TJ Carrie interception— Dan Murphy (@DMurph_BrownsPR) December 16, 2018
The Browns' defense deserves most of the credit for this win. They forced two turnovers, took away the running game completely, limited Keenum to check-downs, and made two huge stops in the fourth quarter. First, they forced a fourth-and-1 inside the 10-yard line, and the Broncos responded by kicking a field goal in a decision that made no sense. And then they got the stop at the end of the game to seal the win.
Mayfield isn't the only reason why the Browns will have arguably the most attractive coaching vacancy in the offseason. The defense is almost as alluring.
Miller sets franchise record
It's time to update the Broncos' record books. With his sack of Mayfield on the final play of the third quarter, Von Miller became the Broncos' all-time leader in sacks with his 98th since joining the franchise back in 2011.
How the Browns can win the AFC North
Our John Breech already outlined how the Browns can win the AFC North. It involves multiple steps, the first of which the Browns completed Saturday night by beating the Broncos.
So, what has to happen next? Obviously, the Browns need to win their final two games against the Bengals and Ravens. The Ravens need to go 1-1 against the Buccaneers and Chargers over the next two weeks before they meet the Browns in Week 17. The Steelers also need to lose out, but with two of those games coming against the Patriots and Saints, there's a chance the Browns will still be alive in Week 17. If that happens, the Browns would need the Bengals, who added Hue Jackson to their staff after the Browns fired him, to beat the Steelers in Week 17.
The Browns could also make the playoffs as a wild card team:
Don't hold me to this but playoff picture for #Browns looks like: IF Cleveland wins out to finish 8-7-1, they need Baltimore (7-6), Dolphins (7-6), Colts (7-6) & Titans (7-6) to go 1-2 the final 3 weeks of the season and the Browns will be the 2nd AFC Wild Card.— Daryl Ruiter (@RuiterWrongFAN) December 9, 2018
A lot of things still need to go their way, but it's been a while since we've been forced to come up with playoff scenarios for the Browns in December.
The Browns close out the year against two AFC North foes, the Bengals and Ravens, while the Broncos wrap up against two AFC West opponents, the Raiders and Chargers.
Feel free to relive the game with our live blog below.