On a night of firsts at FirstEnergy Stadium, the Browns delivered the kind of Thursday night victory that's become commonplace in recent years.
Case Keenum's first start with the Browns featured touchdowns from players who never scored them before and a bounce-back performance from Cleveland's defense. The Browns took an early lead and never gave it up to get back in the win column with a 17-14 victory over the Denver Broncos.
The win, which moved the Browns to 4-3 on the season and snapped a two-game skid, marked the fourth straight Cleveland has collected in its last four appearances under the Thursday Night Football spotlight. All four have come at FirstEnergy Stadium.
"That is a great team win," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "I am really proud of the guys for fighting like crazy to get to this game. Guys who were pushing through those injuries, it was just incredible to see these Thursday night games and what they put their bodies through. I am really proud of them."
D'Ernest Johnson, making his first career start in place of the injured Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, sliced through the Broncos defense on his way to a career-high 146 yards on 22 carries. He scored the first touchdown of his three-year career to cap Cleveland's game-opening drive and never slowed down, putting the Broncos away on the Browns' final drive with big run after big run.
"It felt great knowing that everyone believed in me," Johnson said. "Coming out here and getting a win for the team means a lot. Being able to come out here and fight hard just go get this victory means a lot."
Keenum, playing for an injured Baker Mayfield, ran an efficient Browns offense that compiled 376 yards against a stingy Denver defense. He completed his first five passes and finished 21-of-33 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown.
Check out photos of the Browns against the Broncos in week seven
Jarvis Landry, in his first game back since Week 2, led the Browns with five catches for 37 yards. Keenum got the ball in the hands of 10 different Browns, and nine of them finished with at least two catches.
"Case fought like he always does," Stefanski said. "I thought he orchestrated the operation. He took care of the football. That was a huge play in the end zone there on fourth down just to make a play and fighting for extra yards, but he did a great job fighting."
The Broncos, who trailed by two possessions for most of the game, drew within three with 5:17 to play, when Teddy Bridgewater connected with RB Javonte Williams on a 10-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal. The Browns just never gave it back. Cleveland ran out the clock behind the running of Johnson to put Denver away and get back in the win column.
"We had to keep the dream alive," said DE Myles Garrett, who recorded 1.5 sacks. "We definitely could not go under .500. It was a big game for us, especially because they had the same record as us. We have to knock them off and then have Pittsburgh come to the house. The rest are all big now because of our little slide that we had."
The Browns came out hot and delivered one of their best drives of the season to start Thursday's game.
Keenum got Landry involved on the very first play with a 7-yard completion before connecting with Austin Hooper on a screen that went for 34 yards. The next three plays were all Johnson, who ran 20 yards, 10 yards and then the final 4 for the first touchdown of his three-year NFL career.
"It is unexplainable, I cannot even lie to you," Johnson said. "I wanted to celebrate, but I did not know what to do. I just yelled because it has been a long journey, man. To get your first start and get 100 yards and your first touchdown, that ain't nothing but God."
The defense matched the intensity, forcing a three-and-out to start the game and limiting the Broncos to just 76 yards and two first downs in the first half. Denver's only promising possession of the half ended with a Browns interception, as S John Johnson III picked off Bridgewater in the end zone on the first play of the second quarter.
Chase McLaughlin's 52-yard field goal — his fourth from 50+ this season — extended the Browns' advantage, 10-0, with 3:14 to play in the first quarter.
Cleveland saw its 10-point halftime advantage dwindle to a field goal when the Broncos came out firing to start the third quarter. Bridgewater moved quickly, and Denver marched down the field through the air before it capped the 13-play drive with an 8-yard touchdown pass to RB Melvin Gordon II.
The Browns, though, came right back with an extensive drive of their own that featured plenty of grit and timely conversions. None was bigger than Keenum's scramble on fourth-and-3 from the Broncos' 6, as he barreled his way for 5 yards to extend the drive. One play later with 27 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Keenum delivered a 1-yard strike to FB Johnny Stanton IV for his first touchdown pass as Browns quarterback.
"Nobody flinched in our locker room and everybody stepped up - next man up," LB Anthony Walker said. "Guys made some huge plays out there. We are a bunch of competitive tough guys in the locker room, and I am proud to be a part of this team."