The Browns have still never defeated Peyton Manning.
The venerable quarterback owned a 6-0 lifetime record against them prior to Sunday’s game and a 7-0 one when it was done, despite Manning almost handing them the game in overtime. Facing 3rd and 2 on Denver’s 39 yard line, Manning threw an interception to a leaping Barkevious Mingo that the Browns’ linebacker took back inside Denver’s 40 yard line. This seemingly put the nail in the coffin of Manning’s forgettable day that saw him post a passer rating of 53.3. The Broncos’ defense had other ideas. They did not allow the Browns a single yard, actually pushing them back 18, giving Manning another chance. He took advantage and led a 72 yard drive that culminated with the game winning field goal. Despite escaping with the win, Manning threw 3 interceptions, increasing his season total to a league leading 10 against only 7 touchdown passes. In comparison, Manning averaged 18 touchdown passes against 3 interceptions through 6 games in his previous years with Denver. This leaves the Broncos with serious questions about how far this version of Manning can take them, despite starting the season 6-0.
The loss means the Browns squandered a 4th quarter rally and two more touchdown receptions by tight end Gary Barnidge. Trailing the game 16-7 entering the final period, McCown seemingly shook off a rough game of his own, having turned the ball over twice to that point. He led late drives of 80 and 52 yards, which combined with linebacker Karlos Dansby’s interception return touchdown to draw the game even at 23. The Broncos gave the Browns a golden opportunity to win in regulation when three straight Manning incompletions took only 24 seconds off the clock after Cleveland tied the game. The Browns got the ball in tremendous field position with over a minute to go and seemed in business when McCown hit Travis Benjamin for 14 yards to Denver’s 46, but the promising drive ended with McCown’s third turnover, a poorly thrown interception to Safety David Bruton. McCown was 26 of 48 with 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, both of which were of the devastating variety. He also lost the ball on a sack fumble, leading to a short drive for the Broncos that resulted in 3 points. Overall, McCown’s turnovers led directly to 10 Denver points and cost the Browns their best opportunity to win.
Travis Benjamin caught 9 passes for 117 yards in the losing effort, raising his team leading total to 528 yards. Barnidge’s two touchdowns increased his season total to 5, matching Benjamin for the team lead in that category. Kicker Travis Coons remained perfect on the season, adding a field goal and two extra points. The defense, despite the three takeaways, continued to struggle, giving up 152 yards on the ground and 442 yards total.
– On first down at the Broncos’ 39 yard line in overtime, needing only 5-10 yards to give Coons a chance to win the game, running back Robert Turbin barely hung on to McCown’s pitch and lost 3 yards. On each of the ensuing two snaps, the Broncos’ pass rush got to McCown, forcing a Browns punt from their own side of the field. The Browns never got the ball back.
Other key plays:
– After the Browns took a 20-16 lead on Dansby’s touchdown, the Broncos scored on the next play from scrimmage when Manning hit wide receiver Emmanual Sanders for 75 yards.
– On the Bronco’s 2nd overtime possession, Denver faced 3rd and 4 at their 18 yard line. Manning hit tight end Owen Daniels on a short route that Daniels carried for 18 yards to extend the drive. They would not face another 3rd down until the ball was past the 50 yard line.
– Facing 4th and 5 on the Broncos 32 yard line in their first offensive series, the Browns opted to go for it rather than try a 51 yard field goal. McCown’s pass attempt to Barnidge fell incomplete, meaning the Browns did not capitalize on the first Manning turnover of the day and take an early lead.
Keys to the Defeat:
– McCown. A week after having a career day against the Ravens, McCown had a rough outing, sleepwalking through three quarters and turning the ball over three times, each of which either led directly to Broncos points or prevented Browns points. In overtime, he took two costly sacks that caused a drive that started on the edge of field goal range to end up back in Browns’ territory. The Broncos have the #1 ranked defense in the league, but when presented with two clear opportunities to win the game, McCown did not take advantage of either.
– Pettine. The Browns’ coach was plagued by several questionable decisions that came back to haunt the team. Having taken the lead 20-16, he made the inexplicable decision to go for 2, despite having a kicker that has not missed a kick this season. This meant that when the Broncos scored their touchdown on the following drive, it put them up by 3 instead of 2, meaning a Browns field goal could only tie the game, not take the lead.
In the first quarter, he opted neither to punt or to try for points, but to attempt a low percentage 4th down conversion against the league’s top ranked defense. 4th and 5 is a low percentage play in the best of circumstances and the result was predictable. The failure to convert the fourth down meant that the Browns neither gained points or field position from a drive that started off of a Broncos turnover. When teams turn the ball over, the Browns must take advantage.
– The Running game. I am not wild about the decision to take an ineffective 2 man platoon of running backs and add another running back to it, meaning that even though the Browns had 33 rushing attempts on the day, no single back had more than 11. I understand that in this league, you want to preserve the shelf life of a back for as long as possible, but at this pace, no Browns rusher would have more than 176 attempts for the season. Running backs need more than that if they are going to establish a rhythm and wear down defenses.
Cleveland travels to St. Louis to face the Rams, who have faced a brutal early season schedule with games against the Seahawks, Steelers, Cardinals, and Packers, and emerged 2-3. There are plenty of questions about the Rams’ offense, which is ranked next to last in the league in scoring behind Nick Foles, who compiled a mediocre 77.6 passer rating to this point in the season, but rookie running back Todd Gurley’s 5.7 yards per carry do not bode well for a Browns defense that struggles against the run. It looks to be a proverbial case of the unstoppable force meeting the movable object.