The Denver Broncos should feel embarrassed after losing 17-14 on Thursday night to the Cleveland Browns, who were, for all intents and purposes, fielding a practice squad due to an injury-riddled defensive corps and missing key starters on offense.
Case Keenum stepped in for an injured Baker Mayfield and made the most of his first start in two years, third-string back D'Ernest Johnson rushed for 146 yards and Cleveland overcame a short week and a long list of injuries to beat the Broncos.
Keenum didn't put up impressive stats (21 of 33 for 199 yards), but threw a touchdown pass and did enough – as did Cleveland's maligned defense – to get the Browns (4-3) a much-needed victory.
They survived without Mayfield, who sat out with a shoulder injury and could miss more time.
“Unfortunately, some people are going to get hurt,” Keenum said after his first win since 2019. “At the same time, you love other young guys getting chances.”
Johnson, playing because stars Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt were both out with calf injuries, had the best game of his young career. He scored on a 4-yard run in the first half and picked up 52 yards on seven carries as the Browns chewed up the final 5:17 after the Broncos pulled within three.
Once he reached the end zone, Johnson wasn't sure how to react.
“It’s unexplainable,” he said. “I wanted to celebrate but I didn’t know what to do. It’s been a long journey.”
The Broncos couldn't stop Johnson and now they can't stop losing, either.
“The last drive was very frustrating,” Denver coach Vic Fangio said. “We loaded up against the run and we couldn't stop them.”
Afterward, Johnson, who worked on a fishing boat when he wasn't drafted, got doused with water by his teammates in a raucous locker room celebration.
Johnson couldn't believe that NBA superstar LeBron James tweeted about him in the game's final minutes.
“LeBron?” he said. “Man, that's my favorite basketball player. LeBron? That's amazing. That means a lot. Wow!"
Denver quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw a pair of TD passes and gutted it out while playing with foot and quadriceps injuries. He finished 23 of 33 for 187 yards with one interception.
The Broncos (3-4) dropped their fourth straight game, and maybe as importantly, lost star linebacker Von Miller to a sprained ankle. The eight-time Pro Bowler missed all of 2020 with a dislodged ankle tendon.
Miller got hurt late in the first half when he banged legs with teammate Dre'Mont Jones while rushing Keenum.
Mayfield, who has been playing with a torn labrum, also has a broken bone in his non-throwing shoulder but believes he can continue to play with it, a person familiar with the quarterback's health told the Associated Press (AP).
Mayfield hopes the injury improves enough in the coming days that he can play against Pittsburgh on Oct. 31, said the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
The fourth-year QB revealed the break in his humerus bone – which runs from his shoulder to elbow – to Fox during the network's pregame show.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski did not get into any specifics about Mayfield's injury, but said it was “too far away” to know if the QB will be back next week.
Until he's ready, Keenum showed he can keep the Browns going forward.
So did Johnson, an unlikely hero.
“A guy like him, who the locker room loves and everybody loves – a great young family and just a good overall person,” Keenum said. "To come in here and having an incredible night like that and make some big-time plays for us on a national stage, very pumped for him. It was exciting.”
After Bridgewater's 8-yard TD pass to Melvin Gordon brought the Broncos within 10-7 in the third quarter, Keenum directed a 13-play, 75-yard drive he capped with a 1-yard scoring pass to fullback Johnny Stanton IV.
Keenum made the biggest play on the drive, converting a fourth-and-3 play with a 5-yard scramble to Denver's 1.
The 33-year-old, who last started for Washington two years ago, was excited about the opportunity to play, saying Wednesday he was “built for this” and Keenum showed he's more than capable of filling in.
Browns receiver Jarvis Landry had five catches for 37 yards in his first action since missing four games with a sprained knee. He was activated a few hours before the opening kick.
Odell Beckham Jr. had a forgettable night.
The Cleveland star receiver, who didn't practice this week due to a shoulder injury, had a drop, got called for an illegal formation and was briefly out of the game after banging his shoulder – all in the first half.
Beckham bounced back with two receptions in the third quarter.
Broncos: ILB Micha Kiser (groin) left in the first quarter. Denver was already thin at linebacker after placing Alexander Johnson and Andre Mintze on injured reserve earlier this week.
Browns: WR Donovan People-Jones suffered a groin injury during pregame warmups and didn't play ... CB Denzel Ward injured his left hamstring in the fourth quarter ... Cleveland was also missing starting RT Jack Conklin, who missed his second straight game with a knee injury.
Broncos: Host Washington on Oct. 31.
Browns: A much-welcomed extra few days off to heal before facing rival Pittsburgh on Halloween.
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