CLEVELAND – Don’t blame fans for doing a double take when they turned on the television or showed up at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
The sun was shining. The temperature was in the upper 30s. It’s Dec. 7. This couldn’t be Cleveland, right?
It was this afternoon and just as unusual was the caliber of Browns team the Colts were about to face when they made their way to the shores of Lake Erie.
After years of sputtering, the Brian Hoyer-led Browns are 7-5 on the season with their first legitimate shot at the playoffs since 2007. What may have seemed like a likely victory on a gray day before the season started took on a whole new look during the first weekend in December.
While the weather was pretty, this game was ugly. But the Colts had enough magic to pick up a 25-24 win and improve to 9-4.
T.Y. Hilton’s touchdown catch with 32 seconds to go helped the team overcome four turnovers to stay two games ahead of the Texans in the AFC South. That was the first time the Colts led all game and it marks the first time that the Andrew Luck has led a fourth quarter comeback in 2014.
“Our number one goal was to win the game and get win number nine,” said head coach Chuck Pagano of the win. “We achieved that goal. I’m never going to sit here and apologize for winning. We played a damn good football team.”
They made it hard for Luck all day as he completed 23-of-54 passes for 294 yards with a pair of touchdowns and interceptions. While those are very average numbers for the quarterback he was able to lead his 12th-career game winning drive in the final three minutes.
“Just glad we won. I had some real bonehead mistakes, two touchdowns on my account, against us. I can’t do that,” said Luck. “It feels good to win on the road, in this fashion, against a very good team. A big team victory. We made enough plays when it mattered. A great job on defense and special teams as well.”
Defenses dominated early as each team struggled to get much offensive rhythm going. Cleveland had the biggest threat of the quarter when they drove inside the Colts’ ten-yard line but Mike Adams’ fingertip interception of Hoyer ended the drive.
In fact the only scoring of the quarter came from the Browns defense who forced the 12th fumble of Andrew Luck this season on a sack in the shadow of the Colts’ goal line. Craig Robertson recovered the ball in the endzone to give Cleveland a 7-0 lead.
As the Colts offense continued to sputter, the Browns tried to add to their lead early in the second quarter with a run-heavy drive that got down to the Indianapolis 22-yard line. But a struggling Billy Cundiff missed a 40-yard field goal to keep the Colts’ deficit at seven.
Finally Luck and the offense were able to put together a sustained drive. Aided by a long completion to Boom Herron, Luck finished off the drive with a shifty 11-yard touchdown run to tie the game at seven.
Cleveland responded with a nine-play, 77-yard drive that ended with an Isaiah Crowell nine-yard touchdown run that made it 14-7 at the break.
Turnovers were once again an issue for the Colts in the second half as T.Y. Hilton fumbled a pass on the teams first drive which gave the ball to Cleveland. While the defense bailed out the offense on that one they wouldn’t get the chance when Justin Gilbert intercepted Luck and returned it 23 yards for the score to make it 21-7.
Indianapolis got some momentum when Adam Vinatieri saved a drive with a 53-yard field goal to cut the lead to eleven. Hilton added more to that when he made a catch at the Browns’ 20-yard line and then faked out a few defenders to complete a 42-yard touchdown play. A two-point conversion try by the Colts was no good so Cleveland’s lead stayed at 21-16.
Hilton almost had another touchdown late in the third quarter but on a corner route he couldn’t hold onto the pass in the endzone. To start the fourth quarter Vinatieri got the Colts even closer with another field goal as the Browns lead was down to two points.
Another Luck interception, however, negated those points later in the fourth as Cundiff knocked down his first field goal of the day to push the lead back up to 24-19.
The Colts would get one more chance when they got the ball back with 3:46 to go in the game and a number of players made critical plays on this eventual game-winning drive. Donte Moncrief kept it going when he reeled in a 27-yard reception on third down inside the Colts’ own ten-yard line.
After a pass interference call got the Colts into Browns territory, Coby Fleener got them into the red zone with his own third down catch. Once inside the five Boom Herron saved the game with a gutsy fourth-and-one run in which he was initially stopped but bounced to the outside to pick up the first down.
Luck would find Hilton on the next play for the touchdown to seal a win that was nothing like the unseasonable weather.