The Cleveland Browns' defense arrived in Indianapolis this weekend on a historically-dominant pace, allowing just 200 yards per game, 3.8 yards per play and a shade over 15 points per game entering Week 7.
The Colts gained 456 yards of offense and averaged 6.9 yards per play against that vaunted Browns defense. They scored 38 points.
But four turnovers – double the Browns defense's takeaway total prior to Week 7 – and eight penalties wound up defining the Colts' gutting 39-38 to the Browns on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"That was a really good defense we played, one of the best," quarterback Gardner Minshew said. "I think that should give us a lot of confidence there – that and understanding that we have everything we need and everything that we're messing up right now is in our control."
Minshew lost three fumbles and threw an interception, while a Matt Gay 60-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Browns defensive end Myles Garrett. One of those fumbles was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown; another fumble, the interception and the blocked field goal led to short-field possessions for the Browns, who scored a touchdown and hit two field goals on them.
All told, the Browns turned those plays into 20 points; Minshew's final fumble was lost on a last-ditch drive with only seconds left in the fourth quarter, sealing Cleveland's win.
So even though the Colts' offense was explosive and efficient against an otherwise stifling defense, that wasn't what defined the game.
"It shows what we're capable of, but, again, all it comes down to winning the turnover battle," head coach Shane Steichen said. "We're 3-0 when we win the turnover battle. When we don't, obviously, we've lost four. We got to be better taking care of the football."
The Browns bookended Sunday's game with lengthy scoring drives – first with running back Jerome Ford rumbling 69 yards for a touchdown, then last a 12-play, 80-yard possession defined by back-to-back penalties assessed to cornerback Darrell Baker Jr. The first, an illegal contact flag, wiped out an EJ Speed strip-sack that would've clinched a Colts win; the second, a pass interference flag in the end zone, gave Cleveland first-and-goal on the one-yard line with 33 seconds left.
Both in the moment and after the game, Colts players expressed disagreement with those flags on Baker – while also maintaining there were plays they could've made on both sides of the ball to not have the game come down to those back-to-back penalties.
"You win as a team, lose as a team," center Ryan Kelly said. "This one stings about as bad as I can remember because they're a good team. We played hard, the whole team played hard."
In between those drives, though, the Browns ran 48 plays and gained just 166 yards (3.5 yards/play), with P.J. Walker taking over for Deshaun Watson at quarterback following a near-interception by cornerback Kenny Moore II. In that span, the Browns managed just six points on drives that began in their own territory – both Dustin Hopkins field goals from 50-plus yards – but scored 20 other points off those turnovers and the blocked field goal.
"(Steichen's) message was, turnovers and penalties in this league get you beat," tight end Mo Alie-Cox said, "and we had turnovers and we had penalties in critical situations today, and you saw what happened."
The Colts will nonetheless take some encouraging things away from Sunday's loss, given the team set season highs in points (38) and total yards (456). Wide receiver Josh Downs scored a 59-yard touchdown and wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. rumbled for a 75-yard score, the latter was Colts' longest touchdown since Week 9 of the 2021 season. Running back Jonathan Taylor scored his first touchdown of the season, while Minshew shimmied his way into the end zone twice.
Those are all things the Colts feel like they can build on, especially once the turnovers and penalties get cleaned up.
"It was definitely a roller coaster of a game," Minshew said. "A lot of good I feel like we did on the offensive side and then once again, turnovers really bit us there. I think we just got to do a better job of taking care of the ball, playing complimentary football when our defense is playing well.
"Yeah, that one hurts, man."
View in-game highlights from the Colts versus Browns at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 22.