DENVER — Baker Mayfield lacked his usual lethal accuracy and committed two turnovers, yet the rookie quarterback still found a way to give the Browns the boost they needed to defeat the Denver Broncos 17-16 on Saturday night.
"A win’s a win. I’ll take it," Mayfield said after the Browns managed to stay on the edge of the playoff picture by prevailing at Broncos Stadium at Mile High. "Definitely wasn’t our best game by any means — starting with myself — but coming out with a win on the road is hard, and we did that."
Mayfield finished the nationally televised, prime-time matchup 18-of-31 passing for 188 yards and two touchdowns with an interception and a rating of 83.8.
His completion percentage of 58 wasn't nearly as dangerous as the 73.2 he had compiled in his first five games under offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens.
With the Browns (6-7-1) in field-goal range and facing first-and-10 at the Broncos 30-yard line, Mayfield overthrew wide receiver Jarvis Landry and was intercepted at the 2 by safety Dymonte Thomas, an Alliance native, with 18 seconds remaining in the first half.
"They did a good job of mixing stuff up," said Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft. "They started making plays, just giving us different looks, especially on the interception. It was just a bad throw. That was the first look at two-man [coverage] they showed to us, and they did it at a good time."
With the score tied 10-10 coming out of halftime, the Browns opened the third quarter with a marathon of a drive, but the 15-play, 43-yard series ended with Mayfield losing a fumble. On second-and-6 from Denver's 36, Adam Gotsis strip-sacked Mayfield, and fellow Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe recovered at the 40 with 5:49 left in the third quarter.
The Broncos (6-8) turned the takeaway into Brandon McManus' 42-yard field goal and a 13-10 lead with 1:41 remaining in the third quarter.
Another turnover gave Mayfield a spark, though.
Browns cornerback TJ Carrie intercepted a pass quarterback Case Keenum intended for receiver DaeSean Hamilton at the Broncos 48 with 14:41 left in the fourth quarter.
The Browns then orchestrated a six-play, 48-yard scoring drive with Mayfield completing all four of his passes on the march for 39 yards.
On first-and-goal, rookie wide receiver Antonio Callaway beat safety Justin Simmons on a slant route and caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Mayfield, allowing the Browns to seize a 17-13 lead with 11:44 remaining. It was their 15th touchdown on their 15th trip into the red zone under Kitchens.
"It’s huge," Mayfield said. "Being able to go down and see what they’re doing and get the ball into Callaway’s hands, it was huge for us. Anytime you’re on a drive like that, late in the game, the fourth quarter, being able to come out with a win is crucial. You have to make plays when it counts."
The Broncos trimmed their deficit to a point during the next series, when McManus made a 29-yard field goal with 4:35 left in the fourth quarter. But the Browns held on to defeat the Broncos for the first time in 28 years, and the 23-year-old Mayfield improved to 5-6 as Cleveland's starter.
"Great quarterbacks find a way," free safety Damarious Randall said. "No matter what the situation, no matter how the game has been, if you've got a chance to take a lead or win in the fourth quarter, great quarterbacks find a way to do that, and that's exactly what he did tonight. He gave us a lead late, and we just never let it slip away."
Mayfield also gave the Browns the lead early. Sandwiched between the defense forcing two three-and-outs to begin the game, he threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to receiver Breshad Perriman on third-and-9, giving the Browns a 7-0 lead with 11:49 left in the first quarter.
Mayfield is the first Browns quarterback to throw for at least one touchdown pass in 11 consecutive starts since Bernie Kosar, who had a streak of 12 in 1987.
"Clutch when we need it," strong safety Jabrill Peppers said. "He's still a rookie. We understand he's going to make mistakes. The way he plays, it makes you think he's not a rookie, but we know, and as a defense, we tell him we've got his back.
"You're feeling dangerous this morning? Be dangerous. We've got you. Make all those throws. Scramble. Do whatever you've got to do 'cause when you know you have a quarterback that can do what he can do, it makes you want to play better on defense. And even if you do give up some points, you know a quarterback like that is going to put some points on the board when it matters, and he did."
Mayfield has a knack for bouncing back within games. After he threw three interceptions in the second quarter on Dec. 2 against the Houston Texans, he passed for 351 yards in the second half, albeit in a 29-13 loss.
"You have to hit the reset button," Mayfield said. "Stuff happens. The game is never going to be perfect, but the most important play is always the next one. We’ve got to make plays when it counts, and you have to have a fresh mindset."
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his Browns coverage at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByNateUlrich and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.