CLEVELAND — Andrew Luck was indecisive, unsteady and inaccurate. For 57 minutes, he looked nothing like a franchise quarterback or one of the NFL’s biggest stars.
Given a final chance by the Browns, Luck redeemed himself and rescued the Colts.
Bottled up all afternoon by Cleveland’s swarming defense, Luck threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton with 32 seconds left, rallying Indianapolis to a 25-24 win on Sunday.
“He just had that fire in his eyes,” Colts running back Daniel Herron said.
Luck had helped the Browns build a 14-point lead with his fumble that was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown, and by throwing an interception returned by rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert for a TD. Starting at his own 10 with 3:46 left, Luck took the Colts (9-4) on an 11-play, 90-yard drive.
“Some real bonehead mistakes,” Luck said. “Can’t do that, but it feels good to win on the road, in this fashion against a very good team. Made enough plays when it mattered just to get it done.”
Before Luck, who threw two picks and was sacked three times, connected on his second TD pass to Hilton, Herron picked up 2 yards on a critical fourth down to keep the drive going.
Luck finished with 294 yards passing, picking up 208 in the second half.
The Browns (7-6) got two defensive TDs, but Cleveland’s offense, led by struggling quarterback Brian Hoyer, couldn’t do enough to keep the team’s playoff hopes from fading. The Browns picked up only three first-downs after halftime and missed a chance to host Cincinnati next week with the AFC North lead on the line.
“It’s a kick in the gut,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said. “It’s an opportunity that we let go. We know our margin for error is now zero, that we’ve got to win our last three or we’re done.”
Hoyer’s hold on his starting job over rookie Johnny Manziel has never been more tenuous. He completed 14 of 31 passes for 140 yards and threw two interceptions, a performance that did nothing to solidify Hoyer’s standing on the depth chart. Pettine said he did not consider switching to Manziel during the game like he did last week in Buffalo, but would not commit to Hoyer for next week.
“I have to play better,” Hoyer said. “With each game that goes by, there are less and less opportunities to figure out how this season is going to go.”
Down 24-19 and time running out, Luck completed a 27-yard pass to rookie Donte Moncrief on third down, and the Colts got 35 yards when Browns cornerback Buster Skrine was called for interference on the next play.
Herron, though, made the drive’s biggest play. On fourth down at the 3, he ran right and was initially stopped at the line. But Herron spun away from the pile and cut inside safety Donte Whitner for the first down.
“That was all Boom Herron right there,” Luck said. “That was a great run and probably one of the best half-a-yard runs I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Adam Vinatieri kicked a pair of field goals for Indianapolis, which trailed 14-7 at halftime and by 14 early in the third.
The Colts were reeling, but Luck found a way.
He moved Indianapolis into position for Vinatieri’s 51-yard field goal to make it 21-10. After Cleveland’s offense went three-and-out, Luck connected with Hilton on a 42-yard TD pass to make it 21-16.
The Colts’ 2-point conversion attempt was intercepted by safety Jim Leonhard, but the Browns gave the ball right back with another unproductive series. Vinatieri’s 33-yard field got the Colts within two, but the Browns went up 24-19 on Billy Cundiff’s 39-yarder with 8:34 left.
Cleveland’s Isaiah Crowell scored on a 9-yard run with 1:14 left in the half, completing a 77-yard drive that may have saved Hoyer from being benched in the second half.
Hoyer had badly overthrown wide-open Taylor Gabriel on the second play of the drive, triggering more boos and louder cries for Manziel. Hoyer bounced back on the next play, rifling a 27-yard pass over the middle to Travis Benjamin.
Cleveland’s defense manhandled the NFL’s top offense in the first half, holding the Colts to 117 total yards and harassing Luck on nearly every throw.
NOTES: Colts C Jonotthan Harrison (neck) and RG Joe Reitz (ankle) both left with injuries did not return. Pagano said both would undergo further evaluations. … With just one catch for 5 yards, WR Reggie Wayne had his NFL record streak of consecutive games with three or more catches snapped at 82. … Return specialist Joshua Cribbs, who spent eight seasons with the Browns, saw a similar type of team to the ones he was on in Cleveland. “They got a hungry group of young guys that just suffer from the same thing — they gotta finish,” he said.