CLEVELAND (AP) — Rising high above downtown Cleveland on an unusually warm autumn night, the Terminal Tower was bathed in bright orange lights on Sunday, a glowing tribute to a team that has this football-obsessed city fired up.
For the first time in 26 years, the beloved Browns are 4-1.
Talk about an October surprise.
Showing resiliency, depth and maybe their legitimacy as a playoff contender, the Browns held on to beat the Indianapolis Colts 32-23 on Sunday for their fourth straight win under unflappable first-year coach Kevin Stefanski, who in five games has already surpassed former Cleveland coach Hue Jackson’s win total over three seasons.
It’s still early, and a visit to undefeated Pittsburgh is up next. But the Browns, who haven’t been in the postseason since 2002 and didn’t win a single game three years ago, are growing more confident each week.
“We’re a different unit this year,” offensive lineman Chris Hubbard said Monday. “We’re a very hungry team.”
Cleveland passed what was hyped as a test to prove its veracity in the matchup against the Colts, who came in with the NFL’s top-ranked defense.
The Browns built a 27-10 lead and then survived a comeback — and quarterback Baker Mayfield shook off some sore ribs — to get past Indianapolis with several unsung players making key contributions down the stretch.
Safety Ronnie Harrison returned an interception 47 yards for a touchdown in his first start. Hubbard, who made 29 starts at right tackle the past two seasons, went in at guard for the first time in a regular-season game after Wyatt Teller went out with a strained calf. Hubbard delivered a key block to spring running back D’Ernest Johnson, playing only because Pro Bowler Nick Chubb is hurt, on a game-icing 28-yard run in the final minutes.
There were others: backup safety Sheldrick Redwine came in when Harrison went out with a concussion and made a late pick, and wide receiver Rashard Higgins, who had been inactive twice this season and seemingly buried on the depth chart, caught a TD pass.
It was a total team effort by a team on the rise.
A different team.
“I have been here for 0-16, and just to see everything turn around, it is amazing,” Higgins said. “Night and day.”
Stefanski is pushing all the right buttons. His play-calling and clock management has been exemplary the past two weeks, and he and coordinator Alex Van Pelt have devised sound game plans that accentuate Mayfield’s strengths outside the pocket.
Bigger still, Stefanski has connected with his players and earned their trust. They’ve bought into his weekly “go 1-0” motto.
“He knows the way,” Higgins said. “He is showing us the way.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The secondary took another hit with Harrison going into concussion protocol and cornerback Greedy Williams being placed on injured reserve with a nerve issue in his shoulder. The Browns are vulnerable to long passes and will certainly be challenged deep by Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger.
Cleveland’s kickoff coverage remains a major problem. The Colts busted off a 101-yard TD return with Isaiah Rodgers averaging 42.4 yards on five returns.
Myles Garrett belongs in the early Defensive Player of the Year conversation. He made a game-swinging play for the fourth week in a row Sunday. The dominating defensive end’s pressure caused Colts quarterback Philip Rivers to panic and commit intentional grounding in the end zone, giving Cleveland a safety and a 29-20 lead.
This week, Garrett, who has six sacks, plays in Pittsburgh for the first time since his helmet-swinging attack on Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph last year.
Not his fault, but Williams’ injury raises questions about his durability. The former LSU standout was hurt in training camp and returned to practice several weeks ago. He was supposed to pair with Denzel Ward and take care of Cleveland’s corners for years.
Mayfield’s ribs are “sore” but Stefanski is optimistic his quarterback will be ready for the Steelers. “I know he is tough and I know he is going to fight through this,” Stefanski said. “But we will be smart.” … Stefanski described Teller’s injury as “week to week,” hinting that he will probably miss this week. Hubbard will start if Teller’s out. … Stefanski hopes to have defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi (abdomen) and Joseph back after they both sat out Sunday.
2 — Mayfield’s completions to the Browns — and the Colts — in the second half. He finished with a season-high 247 yards passing, with 228 coming in the first half.
Heinz Field has been a house of horrors for the Browns. They’ve lost 16 straight in Pittsburgh, with their most recent win coming on Oct. 5, 2003.