CLEVELAND — In a city where the Broncos earned one of their biggest wins, they suffered perhaps the most stinging loss of the season.
In 1986, "The Drive" helped send John Elway and the Broncos to the Super Bowl. On Thursday night, the Broncos' 17-14 loss to the Browns pushed them to 3-4 on the season and a bit further from a playoff berth that has eluded the franchise since Super Bowl 50.
Earlier in the week, outside linebacker Von Miller vowed to play well, record a couple of sacks and lead the Broncos to a win. Instead, former Broncos quarterback Case Keenum led a patchwork Cleveland offense to a victory in prime time.
Miller was forced off the field with a sprain ankle in the second quarter and was held without a sack. Miller said he "dodged a bullet" and expects to play against Washington on Oct. 31, but he could not deliver upon his promise.
"My pride is hurt more than anything," Miller said. "I talked a lot of [stuff] before this game. I made it personal. I wanted the animosity. I wanted this to be that game. I wanted to win it. I was going to leave it all out there today and we did some great things in the half, and I feel like I was on the way to doing some great stuff in the second half."
The responsibility for the Broncos' first loss in Cleveland since 1989 fell on both sides of the ball.
The Broncos' defense allowed a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on the first possession of the game, which marks the third consecutive week and fourth game of the season in which Denver's defense has allowed an opening score.
Unlike a week ago, however, the Broncos' offense was unable to respond early in the game. Denver went three-and-out on its first possession — and on two of the following three drives in the first half. On its four first-half drives, the Broncos' offense managed just 76 yards, recorded two first downs and did not convert any of their four third-down attempts.
"We've got to start better," Bridgewater said. "We've got to stay on the field and do a better job of staying on the field. We just can't wait until the second half. We've got to come out playing fast and make our opponents feel us. You watch us today, it's the same story it's been some of the past couple weeks. We've just got to get a lot of things fixed."
The Broncos' most productive drive came on their second possession, as they traveled 51 yards and picked up two first downs. On third-and-9 from the Cleveland 31-yard line, though, Teddy Bridgewater's deep pass to John Brown hung in the air and was picked off in the end zone by John Johnson III.
"That's a throw I know I can make," Bridgewater said. "I just didn't get into it the way I wanted to."
Bridgewater battled injuries to his foot and quadricep muscle during the week, but he played every offensive snap for the Broncos. Despite a first half in which Bridgewater was 7-for-10 for 58 yards and an interception, Head Coach Vic Fangio said he did not consider switching to backup quarterback Drew Lock.
"I thought he played good, especially there in the second half," Fangio said. "I don't think Teddy's injuries, from my vantage point, affected him that much. I thought he was courageous, and he's our quarterback."
Fangio's faith in his quarterback was rewarded, as the Broncos marched down the field on the opening drive of the second half. Denver's 13-play, 79-yard drive cut the lead to three points, as running back Melvin Gordon III planted his right hand in the ground and dove for the end zone with the ball in his left.
Bridgewater and the offense played far better after the break, recording 147 yards, racking up 13 first downs and converting 5-of-7 third downs. The issue? They had the ball just three times.
Following the Gordon touchdown, the Browns marched 75 yards in 13 plays and milked 7:21 off the clock. The biggest play of the drive — and perhaps of the game — came on fourth-and-3 from the Denver 6-yard line. The Broncos had tight coverage in the end zone, but Keenum found a lane and took off toward the first-down marker. Curtis Robinson and Justin Strnad both had a chance to tackle Keenum short of the line to gain, but they were unable to bring him down. With Miller out, the Broncos played much of Thursday's game without any of their intended starting linebacking corps of Miller, Bradley Chubb, Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson.
"It was rush, and we were trying to get there and it just opened up in the middle," Shelby Harris said of Keenum's play. "And then I looked and he's scrambling off. Obviously that's on all of us to make sure he can't scramble, but good read by him to go out and make a play."
After the Broncos scored another touchdown — this time on a third-down screen pass to Javonte Williams — Denver's defense had another chance to make a statement.
And yet, Cleveland ran the final five minutes and 12 seconds off the clock, as the Browns ran the ball and found repeated success.
"The last drive was very frustrating," Fangio said. "We were loading up for the run and they blocked us and ran it and we couldn't stop them."
The Browns' success in the run game certainly wasn't unique to the second half. Third-string running back D'Ernest Johnson, playing in place of an injured Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, had 64 yards on nine carries at halftime. Cleveland's rushing attack nearly broke 100 yards by the break, and the Browns averaged 6.1 yards per carry in the first 30 minutes.
Cleveland finished with 182 yards on the ground, and Johnson posted a career high 146 yards on 22 carries. Johnson's 146 rushing yards are the most by a player in his first career start since Hunt posted 148 in 2017. Even when the Broncos knew the run was coming, they still couldn't stop it.
Keenum, meanwhile, finished 21-of-33 for 199 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 90.3 rating. Denver did not force a takeaway and has just one — a Malik Reed strip-sack — over the last four games.
"We didn't play good defense tonight," Fangio said. "We let them drive it too much, way too many third-and-1's. We didn't play well enough to win the game."
The result? A loss to a beaten-up team that was also missing its starting quarterback in Baker Mayfield, one of its best linebackers in Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and a slew of other players.
On Thursday night, though, it was the Broncos who were hurting.
"We've got to rally," Fangio said. "We've got to overcome our injuries. We can't use them as excuses. We've got to get back to playing better football, as a team. Make more first downs, which will lead to touchdowns on offense. Play the run better on defense so you don't get so many third-and-1's and third-and-2's. We just got to play better, we gotta coach better. I don't want to be remiss in saying that. We've got to coach better and we've got to adjust to what we have right now."