October surprise: Browns are 4-1, looking like contenders
CLEVELAND (AP) - Towering high above downtown Cleveland on an unusually warm autumn night, the Terminal Tower was bathed in bright orange lights on Sunday, a glowing tribute to a team that set this football-obsessed city on fire.
For the first time in 26 years, the beloved Browns are 4-1.
Talk about an October surprise.
The Browns showed their resilience, depth and perhaps legitimacy as playoff contenders, beating the Indianapolis Colts 32-23 on Sunday for the fourth consecutive year under unshakable first-year coach Kevin Stefanski, who had five games at former Cleveland Coach Hue surpassed Jackson's overall victory in three seasons.
It's still early and a visit to the undefeated Pittsburgh is next. But the Browns, who have been out of the postseason since 2002 and haven't won a single game three years ago, are getting more confident every week.
"We're a different unit this year," said offensive lineman Chris Hubbard on Monday. "We are a very hungry team."
Cleveland passed a test to prove its correctness in the matchup against the Colts, who started with the best defense in the NFL.
The Browns built a 27-10 lead and then survived a comeback - and quarterback Baker Mayfield shook off some sore ribs - to get past Indianapolis, with several unsung players making major contributions along the way.
Safety Ronnie Harrison returned 47 yards for a touchdown on his first start. Hubbard, who made 29 real tackle starts in the last two seasons, was on guard for the first time in a regular season game after Wyatt Teller dated a stressed calf. Hubbard provided a key pad for spring when he ran D'Ernest Johnson back and only played because pro bowler Nick Chubb was injured.
There were others, too: backup security Sheldrick Redwine came in when Harrison went out with a concussion and made a late pick, and broad receiver Rashard Higgins, who had been inactive twice this season and was seemingly buried on the depth map, caught one TD pass.
It was a total team effort from an aspiring team.
"I've been here for 0-16 and just to see it turn around it's amazing," said Higgins. "Night and day."
Stefanski pushes all the right buttons. His game call and clock management has been exemplary over the past two weeks, and he and coordinator Alex Van Pelt have developed sound game plans that highlight Mayfield's strengths out of pocket.
What's even bigger is that Stefanski has bonded with his players and earned their trust. You've shopped into his weekly "go 1-0" motto.
"He knows the way," said Higgins. "He shows us the way."
WHAT NEEDS HELP?
Secondary school scored another hit when Harrison went into the concussion protocol and cornerback Greedy Williams was put on the injured reserve with a nerve problem in his shoulder. The Browns are prone to long passes and will certainly be challenged deeply by Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger.
Cleveland's kickoff coverage remains a major problem. The Colts broke off a 101-yard TD return, with Isaiah Rodgers averaging 42.4 yards on five returns.
Myles Garrett belongs in the conversation of the Early Defender of the Year. He made a playful game on Sunday for the fourth week in a row. Pressure from the dominant defensive end panicked Colts quarterback Philip Rivers and deliberately landed in the end zone, giving Cleveland a security and a 29-20 lead.
This week, Garrett, who has six sacks, plays for the first time since his helmet-wielding attack on Steeler's quarterback Mason Rudolph in Pittsburgh last year.
Not his fault, but Williams' injury raises questions about his durability. The former LSU star was injured in the training camp and returned to training a few weeks ago. He would mate with Denzel Ward and take care of Cleveland's corners for years.
Mayfield's ribs are "sore," but Stefanski is optimistic that his quarterback will be ready for the Steelers. "I know he's tough and I know he'll fight his way through," said Stefanski. "But we'll be smart." ... Stefanski described Teller's injury as "week after week" and hinted that he will likely miss this week. Hubbard will start when Teller fails. ... Stefanski hopes that Larry Ogunjobi (belly) and Joseph after both go back on the defensive sat out Sunday.
2 - Mayfield graduated from the Browns - and the Colts - in the second half. He finished the season high with 247 meters, 228 in the first half.
Heinz Field was a house of horror for the Browns. They lost 16 in a row in Pittsburgh, most recently on October 5, 2003.
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