CLEVELAND — Bill Belichick was their coach and Nick Saban on his staff the last time Cleveland Browns were this good this early.
That was back in 1994, when current coach Kevin Stefanski was 12.
“We have a ways to go,” Stefanski said. “Obviously, we are in this to win it.”
Baker Mayfield passed for a season-high 247 yards and two touchdowns against the NFL's No. 1 defence , Myles Garrett forced a crucial safety in the fourth quarter and the Browns held on for a 32-23 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.
Just three years removed from 0-16, the Browns are 4-1 for the first time since ‘94 — Belichick’s fourth season. That team went to the playoffs, and Stefanski has these Browns dreaming big.
“It's very special," said wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who crawled to the sideline after taking a hard hit in the the first quarter and finished with four catches for 88 yards. “We continue to make strides each week. It's not surprising we're in this position.”
Mayfield made sure the Browns (4-1) kept the momentum going in their first game without Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb, who sprained his knee at Dallas last week. The win may have been costly, though, as Mayfield injured his ribs in the fourth quarter.
The Browns said X-rays on Mayfield were negative.
“Little sore right now,” said Mayfield, who didn't raise his right arm during his postgame Zoom call but expects to play next week at Pittsburgh.
“Mama didn't raise no wuss,” he said.
Cheered on by 12,000 fans inside FirstEnergy Stadium, Mayfield threw TD passes to Kareem Hunt and Rashard Higgins in the first half while rolling up 228 yards passing. The Colts' defence came in allowing the fewest passing yards, points and led the NFL in interceptions.
The fast start gave the Browns plenty of confidence and they seemed to be in total control when safety Ronnie Harrison picked off Philip River s and returned it 47 yards for a TD in the third quarter to give Cleveland a 27-10 lead.
However, Colts returner Isaiah Rodgers brought back the ensuing kickoff 101 yards for a TD — the longest play in the league this season — and the Browns turned to Garrett and their defence and a huge run by backup running back D'Ernest Johnson to finish the job.
With Cleveland clinging to a 27-20 lead, Garrett, who got his sixth sack earlier, pressured Rivers into an intentional grounding call from the end zone for a safety.
“That’s momentum," said Garrett, who also recorded his sixth sack. “We needed a play to be made — and I’m greedy when it comes to that.”
On the Colts' next possession, Browns safety Sheldrick Redwine, who came in while Harrison was being evaluated for a concussion, picked off Rivers.
Indianapolis (3-2) closed within 29-23 on Rodrigo Blankenship's 25-yard field goal with 2:50 left. But Cleveland ran out the clock with Johnson picking up 28 yards on a third-and-9 play before Cody Parkey's 46-yard field goal with 21 seconds left sealed it.
It was a rough performance for the 38-year-old Rivers, who completed 21 of 33 passes for 243 yards and the two picks.
“The interception for a touchdown killed us,” Rivers said. "The other one I’d like back, too. Then obviously, the safety hurt as well. The offence gave them nine points. The defence bowed up in the second half and played well enough to win. Offensively, we felt like we didn’t do enough to win.”
Mayfield's 15-yard TD pass to a wide-open Higgins gave the Browns a 17-10 lead in the second quarter. It was the first scoring connection between the pair this season. Higgins, who had been a favourite target of Mayfield's in 2018, didn't play much last season, had been a healthy scratch for two games in 2020, and dropped on the depth chart.
But after his score, Higgins broke out his red-carpet walk celebration as his teammates pretended to take his photograph.
Mayfield showed patience on his 2-yard scoring pass to Hunt, which gave the Browns a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter.
OBJ'S TURN TO THROW
The Browns got tricky again as wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. completed an 18-yard pass to tight end Austin Hooper.
Last week, Beckham caught a TD pass thrown by Landry.
RIVERS ROLLS ON
Rivers did make some history. He started his 229th consecutive game, tying him with Hall of Fame lineman Bruce Matthews for the second longest in league history. Brett Favre started 297 games in a row.
Rivers also became the fifth quarterback with 5,000 career completions, joining Favre, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
Colts: DT Denico Autry left in the first half with an ankle injury. ... Safety Julian Blackmon left with a groin injury.
Browns: Starting RG Wyatt Teller strained his left calf in the first quarter and didn't return. Chris Hubbard took his spot. ... Harrison suffered a concussion. ... Rookie LB Jacob Phillips injured his knee in the second half and will undergo an MRI. ... DE Olivier Vernon left with a groin injury in the fourth period.
Colts: host Cincinnati on Oct. 18 before their bye week.
Browns: visit rival Pittsburgh on Oct. 18. The Steelers are 4-0 for the first time since 1979.
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Tom Withers, The Associated Press