CLEVELAND — Extending their lead to 17 points, 27-10, on a 47-yard pick six by safety Ronnie Harrison Jr., everything seemed to be going the Cleveland Browns' way early in the third quarter of Sunday's Week 5 matchup against the Indianapolis Colts.
Incredible catches. Fortunate breaks. An opportunistic defense. And now, it seemed, the Browns were putting this one out of reach.
But that's when the Colts' special teams and defensive units, as they've done all season, started to step up to the plate.
Rookie Isaiah Rodgers would show off his elite speed on the ensuing kickoff, taking it 101 yards to the house for a touchdown, and then the defense would finally break through with some pressure, as linebacker Bobby Okereke, who had just underwent thumb surgery six days prior and was wearing a club on his left hand, picked off a Baker Mayfield pass on the Browns' next drive, leading to a Rodrigo Blankenship field goal.
All of a sudden, with 3:58 left in the third quarter, the Colts were down just seven, 27-20.
But football is often a game of momentum, and the Browns would steal it right back from that point on. Defensive end Myles Garrett, the NFL's leader in sacks, would force a safety on quarterback Philip Rivers early in the fourth quarter, and the Colts' inability to consistently find the end zone on offense would haunt them once again the rest of the way, as Indy saw its three-game winning streak snapped with their 32-23 loss in front of an announced crowd of 11,759 at FirstEnergy Stadium.
"Tough loss on the road against a good football team," head coach Frank Reich told reporters after the game. "I give the Browns a lot of credit. They have good coaches and good players, and they played well.
"You lose a game like this, and we all share in it. Everyone shares in it," Reich continued. "I'm a little bit — I hate to say it — encouraged that we can make some of the mistakes we make and we are still in the game against a good football team on the road. That is the way I am viewing it. There are plenty of things we can do better and we will do better."
The storyline heading into Sunday's game was the matchup between the Browns' league-leading rushing attack against Colts' top-ranked defense, but early on, Indy was able to limit Cleveland's running game on defense, and then cash in with a clutch fourth down conversion inside the Browns' 5-yard line, to take a 7-3 lead at the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter.
And when Cleveland responded with a lengthy 14-play, 81-yard drive and a touchdown of their own to go up 10-7 early in the second quarter, Indianapolis would strike right back with a 32-yard field goal from Blankenship to tie the game at 10.
But that's when the Browns would start to take the game over. The Colts' offense couldn't seem to get out of its own way, while their defense struggled to contain Mayfield and the Cleveland passing attack.
By halftime, the Browns led by 10, 20-10, and had nearly a 2:1 advantage in time of possession. Indy's defense came into the game No. 1 in the league in total yards allowed at 236.2 per game, but through two quarters on Sunday, Cleveland had piled up 284 yards of total offense alone, 246 of which was through the air.
Then disaster struck on the Colts' opening drive of the second half. Facing 3rd and 4 from the Indy 47, Rivers felt some pressure off the edge, stepped up into the pocket and fired a pass to his left towards wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. But Harrison Jr. read it the whole way, picking it off and running it back 47 yards to the end zone for what could've been a back-breaking pick six to put the Browns up 27-10.
"It just wasn't a good play," Rivers said after the game. "That is about the only explanation you are going to get."
The Colts showed some resolve from there, however, as Rodgers — college football's top returner at UMass last season, according to Pro Football Focus — took the ensuing kickoff 101 to the house, becoming the sixth rookie in Colts franchise history, and first since Dominic Rhodes in 2001, with a kickoff return for touchdown.
Okereke would step in front of Mayfield's pass attempt to tight end Austin Hooper on the Browns' next drive, and 10 plays later, Blankenship would connect from 37 yards out to cut the Cleveland lead to seven, 27-20.
The Indy defense would force a Browns punt on their next drive, giving the Colts a shot to, at best, tie the game up early in the fourth quarter. But Nyheim Hines would fair catch that Browns punt at his own 4-yard line, and then Rivers, feeling the pressure from Garrett and others, would be called for intentional grounding in the end zone, resulting in a safety.
The Browns led 29-20 at that point, and both offenses would struggle to find the end zone the rest of the way; both Rivers and Mayfield threw their second picks of the day, and one more field goal by each side would secure a nine-point Cleveland win.
The Colts (3-2) had 308 yards of total offense on the day. Rivers completed 21-of-33 passes for 243 yards with two touchdowns, while Taylor led the way on the ground for Indianapolis with 12 carries for 57 yards and a touchdown. Hilton had a team-best six receptions for 69 yards.
The Colts at times struggled to convert third downs, finishing 4-of-11 (36 percent) in that area, and also turned just 1-of-4 red zone trips into touchdowns.
Okereke and Anthony Walker led the way for the Colts' defense, each finishing with an interception and a combined 13 tackles playing without All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard, who missed Sunday's game with a groin injury. Al-Quadin Muhammad finished with three tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
The Browns (4-1), whose win streak extends to four games, tallied 385 yards of total offense on the day, as they controlled the time of possession battle (34:45 to just 25:15 for the Colts) and converted 10-of-17 (59 percent) third-down opportunities. Mayfield completed 21-of-37 passes for 247 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, while Jarvis Landry led the way with four receptions for 88 yards.
Garrett, as expected, was a menace off the edge for the Cleveland defense, finishing with four tackles (one for a loss), one sack, four quarterback hits and forcing that aforementioned safety.
The Colts will look to get back on track next Sunday, as they play host to the Cincinnati Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Bengals lost to the Baltimore Ravens 27-3 today to fall to 1-3-1 on the year.
"I still have a lot of confidence in this team," Reich said. "This is one game. Difficult when you work as hard as we do you are as close as we are and you believe that you are going places like we do. To come on the road and lose this game, it hurts. We will just put it back together and get things going next week."
Catch all the action at FirstEnergy Stadium as the Indianapolis Colts take on the Cleveland Browns in Week 5 of the 2020 season.