By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
DENVER (AP) — Whether it was “The Fumble” or “The Drive” in the playoffs in the 1980s or the 11 consecutive times Denver had dumped Cleveland, the Broncos always served as the Browns’ biggest bugaboo.
With John Elway watching from his suite at Mile High Stadium, Baker Mayfield capitalized on Denver’s depleted cornerback corps and dubious coaching decisions in leading the Browns past the Broncos 17-16 on Saturday night.
Mayfield’s 2-yard TD toss to Antonio Callaway with just under 12 minutes left provided the winning margin for the Browns (6-7-1), who kept alive their slim hopes of ending the NFL’s longest playoff drought.
The Browns still have a shot at their first winning season since 2007 and even their first playoff berth since 2002 thanks to their first win over Denver (6-8) since 1990.
“I think the tough environment, winning on the road’s the most important thing,” Mayfield said. “If we don’t take care of business tonight — and obviously we have to move on and take care of business next week — none of that matters.
“So, being able to win on the road is something we’ve got to take pride in.”
Combined with their win at Cincinnati last month, the Browns have multiple road victories for the first time since 2014.
Callaway’s touchdown made it 17-13 and came with safety Justin Simmons in coverage because the Broncos were down five cornerbacks.
The Broncos responded with a 13-play drive that ate up more than seven minutes, but after Phillip Lindsay was stuffed for no gain on third-and-1 from the Cleveland 6, Broncos coach Vance Joseph sent in kicker Brandon McManus for a field goal instead of going for it on fourth down.
Jabrill Peppers, for one, was surprised the Broncos didn’t try for the first down or the end zone.
“Absolutely. Absolutely. But, hey, it worked out in our favor,” Peppers said. “We’d been stopping them all day and they didn’t want to come away with nothing.”
“I wanted points there,” Joseph explained. “We had about 4:35 left. We had one timeout and the 2-minute warning. I trust our defense to get a stop there.”
It didn’t happen, at least not right away.
Nick Chubb reeled off a 40-yard run on the first play.
“We can’t let that happen,” Von Miller said.
But the Broncos came up with a big stop on fourth-and-1 from the Denver 10 when Cleveland interim coach Gregg Williams went for it — and Chubb was dropped for a 2-yard loss by Adam Gotsis.
“We came up here to win a ballgame,” Williams said. “I don’t think anybody’s worried about me not being aggressive and we came up here to win it. Offensively we were going to win it right there. If not, defensively we’re going to come back and do it. Pretty similar going all-out blitz the last several plays. That’s the aggressive nature of the team.”
The Broncos got the ball back at their 13 with 1:49 remaining and reached the 50-yard line with 52 seconds left. But a spike, two incompletions and a sack by defensive back Peppers of Case Keenum all but ended Denver’s playoff hopes.
Keenum said he wanted the Broncos to go for it on fourth down at the Cleveland 6 but added that ultimately, Joseph’s decision worked out, despite the loss.
“I can’t complain,” Keenum said, “because I’ve got the ball back in my hands with a chance to win the game. So, that’s all I can ask for.”
The Broncos began the night with cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Isaac Yiadom sidelined and they lost Brendan Langley to a concussion in the first half and newly signed Jamar Taylor to an ejection in the second half on the same play Bradley Roby went out with a laceration in his mouth. Roby later returned.
With safety Dymonte Thomas, who had his first career interception in the first half, subbing at cornerback, Miller broke Simon Fletcher’s franchise record of 103½ sacks, including playoffs.
Denver’s depleted defense, however, was forced right back out onto the field when Keenum’s first-down heave was easily picked off by T.J. Carrie at the Broncos 48, after just eight seconds had ticked off the game clock.
“I didn’t see the corner,” Keenum acknowledged. “And it’s not an excuse. But it’s ultimately what lost us the football game because they went out and scored right after that.”
Six plays later, Mayfield put the Browns ahead for good.
Langley went out in the first half and Roby in the second. Combined with Taylor’s ejection — he was signed after Harris fractured his right fibula two weeks ago — and the Broncos were left scrambling in their secondary.