SAN DIEGO – The Browns and Chargers traded fast and furious haymaker punches Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium but in the end it was San Diego that knocked out Cleveland, 30-27, on a heartbreaking game-winning field goal.
Trailing 27-19 late in the fourth quarter, quarterback Josh McCown engineered a brilliant 10-play, 67-yard drive highlighted by a juggling Gary Barnidge 19-yard catch – a play that was overturned when coach Mike Pettine successfully threw the red challenge flag. Two plays later, Barnidge caught the 1-yard touchdown and Taylor Gabriel scored on the 2-point conversion, knotting the score at 27 apiece.
But Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and multi-purpose weapon Danny Woodhead drove San Diego down the field in eight plays, 57 yards to set up a 39-yard game-winning field goal attempt from Josh Lambo – but he missed. The problem? Cleveland jumped offsides on the kick and Lambo drilled his next one to give San Diego the win.
A nearly identical sequence in the third quarter helped decide the victor of this Week 4 showdown.
Browns running back Isaiah Crowell turned a routine check-down from McCown into a 53-yard rumble right through the Chargers defense. Cleveland, however, was clamped down by the San Diego defense inside the 10-yard line, forcing Travis Coons to kick a 33-yard field goal three plays later. The Browns walked away disappointed, but still clung on to a 16-13 lead.
Two plays later, Woodhead took a routine check-down from Rivers and seared through the Cleveland defense for a 61-yard burst. The very next play, San Diego was thinking end zone, and Rivers delivered. Tight end Ladarius Green soared over Donte Whitner to haul in the 19-yard touchdown.
Woodhead had 138 yards on 12 total touches and was the clear X-factor when it was all said and done.
McCown did everything in his power to win it for Cleveland, dancing with grace in the pocket, firing quick passes and turning in a 32-for-41, 356-yard, two-touchdown effort. But in the end, it wasn't enough.
It was classic Rivers when it mattered most and the veteran finished 23-for-38, 358 yards and three touchdown passes. On a key third down early in the fourth quarter, Cleveland sent the house on a blitz and Rivers fired a quick-slant to wide receiver Dontrelle Inman, who flew 68 yards down the field. The Chargers scored two plays later to go up 27-19.
Injuries to Cleveland's defense had a dramatic impact on the game – but the unit again was poached for mass yardage plays and couldn't stop San Diego at the end of the game. Joe Haden (ribs, finger) was listed as probable Friday, but was a late scratch, forcing Pierre Desir into the starting lineup and reserve Johnson Bademosi onto the field for a large chunk of snaps. Tashaun Gipson (ankle) also left the game. Regardless of circumstances, Cleveland's defense has been hurt for big plays in all three of the team's losses.
Despite the loss, Cleveland used its young running backs as dangerous wide receivers and it was as alive as the offense has been in the 2015 season.
Duke Johnson caught nine passes for 95 yards and Isaiah Crowell added an additional three receptions for 62 yards.
In a shift in offensive philosophy, the Browns threw 26 passes in the first half compared to just eight rushing plays. The pass-first approach worked Sunday and the evidence came with 1:35 left in the second quarter. The Chargers sacked McCown and started calling timeouts in hopes of getting the ball back and adding to their 13-10 lead.
Instead, McCown spread the football around the field to Travis Benjamin, Johnson, Andrew Hawkins and a final 14-yard dump-off to Crowell, setting up a 28-yard Coons field goal and a tie score at the half.
The commencing of a fast-paced game would take place near the end of the first quarter. After Cleveland forced two Rivers three-and-outs to begin the game, the 33-year-old quarterback found his groove and lobbed a textbook 28-yard touchdown over Desir and into the arms of wide receiver Keenan Allen.
As promptly as they could, the Browns offense countered with a four-play, 80-yard mad-dash of their own. Crowell exploded for a 32-yard scamper down the right sideline to move Cleveland past midfield. Two plays later, Johnson lined up on the outside as a receiver, blew past San Diego's coverage and hauled in a gorgeous over-the-shoulder catch from McCown for a 34-yard touchdown – the first of his NFL career. The score put Cleveland up 10-7 in the second quarter.
The Browns will take the four-hour flight back to Cleveland immediately after this game, watch the film Monday and begin preparations for the Baltimore Ravens, who also stand at 1-3 this season.