CLEVELAND — The loud, long sighs of relief the Cleveland Browns can let out may rival the winds whipping through Northeast Ohio on Thursday night.
Instead of letting their record drop below .500 entering a so-called “mini-bye” this weekend, the Browns prevailed 17-14 over the Denver Broncos on “Thursday Night Football” at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Earlier this week, Browns safety John Johnson III characterized this matchup as a “must-win game.”
With Case Keenum carrying the torch for injured starting quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Browns improved to 4-3, giving them a much-needed sense of calm ahead of their next game Oct. 31 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In Keenum's first start since Dec. 29, 2019, he completed 21-of-33 passes (63.6%) for 199 yards and a touchdown without an interception for a rating of 90.3 against one of his former teams. The Broncos (3-4) traded the 10-year NFL veteran in March 2019 to the Washington Football Team.
Adversity hit the Browns hard this week. Not only did they lose their second consecutive game Sunday, but they were also decimated by injuries.
Attrition persisted Thursday. Starting cornerback Denzel Ward suffered a left hamstring injury and exited the game for good with 8:42 remaining in the fourth quarter. Even pregame warm-ups weren't safe, as evidenced by No. 3 receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones suffering a groin injury during them and sitting out against the Broncos.
Nevertheless, the Browns responded well enough to earn their fourth consecutive victory on “Thursday Night Football.” Now they need the nine days until their first AFC North showdown of the season to lick their wounds.
Mayfield's streak of 53 consecutive starts ended because of the torn labrum he suffered in his left, non-throwing shoulder Sept. 19 against the Houston Texans and further damaged Sunday in a 37-14 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Mayfield told Fox Sports' Jay Glazer he has a fractured humerus bone as a result of the injured shoulder dislocating this past weekend.
In the Browns' first victory against the Broncos since Mayfield helped them triumph late in his rookie season on Dec. 15, 2018, Cleveland was also missing star running backs Nick Chubb (calf) and Kareem Hunt (calf, on injured reserve), All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin (knee) and rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (high ankle sprain, on IR).
On the bright side, wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. played together for the first time since OBJ suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Oct. 25, 2020, against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Landry had missed the previous four games with a sprained medial collateral ligament he suffered in Week 2 against the Texans, but the Browns activated him from IR Thursday afternoon. Beckham entered Thursday listed as questionable to play, but he pushed through a right shoulder injury he suffered Sunday against the Cardinals.
Beckham landed the shoulder on an incomplete pass along Cleveland's sideline with 42 seconds left in the second quarter, but he returned for the offense's first series of the third quarter and caught passes of 6 and 17 yards on back-to-back plays.
Although Conklin missed his second consecutive game, starting left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. provided a positive development by returning from a two-game absence caused by an ankle injury he has been dealing with since the Sept. 12 season opener.
Landry stood out in his return, catching five passes for 37 yards. Beckham added two catches for 23 yards.
But D'Ernest Johnson was the real hero for the Browns. Starting at running back with Chubb and Hunt out, Johnson rushed 22 times for a career-high 146 yards (6.6 average) and a touchdown.
On third-and-7 from the Denver 20-yard line and with 1:09 left to play, Johnson rushed for 8 yards and a first down to seal the victory.
— NFL (@NFL) October 22, 2021
Denver Broncos make things very interesting after falling behind early
The Browns led 10-0 at halftime, and the Broncos faced an uphill battle in terms of a comeback attempt, especially because they lost their best player late in the first half.
Broncos eight-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Von Miller suffered an ankle injury with 47 seconds left in the first half, when he collided with defensive end Dre'Mont Jones while trying to sack Keenum. Miller didn't return.
But the Broncos still managed to show life, manufacturing a 13-play, 79-yard scoring drive to open the third quarter.
On third-and-goal, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw a short pass to running back Melvin Gordon III, and he escaped a would-be tackle by cornerback Denzel Ward en route to an 8-yard touchdown, allowing the Broncos to cut their deficit to 10-7 with 7:48 left in the third quarter.
Dealing with foot and quadriceps injuries, Bridgewater went 23-of-33 passing for 187 yards and two touchdowns with an interception for a rating of 91.4.
The Broncos' momentum proved to be short-lived after their third-quarter touchdown because the Browns immediately countered with a 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive.
Even with his backup quarterback at the controls, coach Kevin Stefanski stayed aggressive, choosing to go for it on fourth-and-3 from the Denver 6. Keenum rewarded Stefanski by scrambling for 5 yards and a first down.
Then on first-and-goal, Keenum threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to fullback Johnny Stanton IV, who was wide open in the left side of the end zone. The Browns captured a 17-7 lead with 27 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
However, the Broncos didn't go away. They trimmed their deficit to 17-14 with 5:17 remaining in the fourth quarter with a 17-play, 80-yard march. Facing third-and-goal, Bridgewater finished the drive by connecting with rookie running back Javonte Williams for a 10-yard touchdown on a screen.
Then D'Ernest Johnson helped the Browns run out the clock for the win.
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Cleveland Browns jump out to 10-0 lead in first quarter vs. Denver Broncos
Stefanski strayed from his tendency to defer by electing to receive the opening kickoff when the Browns won the coin toss.
The decision paid off because the Browns began the game by seizing a 7-0 lead with a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, capped by Johnson's 4-yard rushing touchdown with 12:20 left in the first quarter.
After the Browns defense registered a three-and-out on its first series, Chase McLaughlin gave Cleveland a 10-0 lead by making a 52-yard field goal with 3:09 left in the first quarter. The kick concluded a 12-play, 43-yard drive and rated high in style points because the flags atop the goal posts at the Dawg Pound were flapping in gusty conditions.
The ensuing series ended with 14:53 left in the second quarter, when John Johnson III intercepted a off-target pass Bridgewater intended for receiver John Brown in the end zone.
The Browns didn't capitalize on the takeaway, though. On their third possession, they advanced to the Denver 47, where their drive stalled in part because of a Beckham drop on second-and-13 with 11:11 left in the second quarter.
On the heels of another incomplete pass intended for Beckham – he slipped on third-and-13 from the Denver 23 – McLaughlin's 41-yard field-goal attempt was blocked by the right hand of Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris with 1:50 remaining in the first half.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: D'Ernest Johnson, Case Keenum carry Browns over Broncos