Browns win again without Watson as the team is finding a way despite QB's injury, uncertain status

CLEVELAND (AP) — For the second week in a row, the Cleveland Browns rallied in the fourth quarter and pulled out a thrilling, unexpected victory.

They showed grit, resilience and resolve.

Deshaun Watson just watched.

After missing two games with a right shoulder injury, Watson started Sunday at Indianapolis but lasted only 12 plays, five pass attempts, one interception — and nearly a second — before Cleveland's quarterback either aggravated his strained rotator cuff or was kept out because coach Kevin Stefanski felt backup P.J. Walker gave the Browns a better chance to win.

Nothing is clear.

Watson's injury, which happened when he got hit in the back of his shoulder on a running play against Tennessee on Sept. 24, has become a daily distraction for the Browns, who have dealt with more than their share of drama in recent seasons.

It's different this time. The Browns (4-2) are winning, overcoming errors to beat the Colts 39-38.

But is it sustainable?

On Monday, Stefanski declined to provide any real update on Watson, who's expected to undergo further medical tests the next two days on his shoulder. Before he went out after being shoved down by a Colts defender in the first quarter, Watson looked like damaged goods.

His throws were short and off target, and although Watson was cleared of a concussion after banging his head off the turf, Stefanski opted to play Walker, a former XFL QB who started against San Francisco a week go and came to the rescue off the bench and made enough plays to help Cleveland win.

Stefanski insisted his decision to keep Watson on the sideline was to “protect our franchise quarterback.”

While that's admirable of Stefanski, Watson has been a franchise quarterback in title only.

The Browns essentially wasted 2022 with him because the 28-year-old had to serve an 11-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy after being accused of sexual harassment and assault by two dozen women.

Watson has only played in nine of 23 possible games.

Watson vowed to be better this season, but other than a solid performance against the Titans, he hasn't looked elite or like a former Pro Bowler, leading to questions about whether the Browns made a catastrophic mistake in trading three first-round draft picks to Houston and signing him to a $230 million contract.

Now, the conversation has switched to when he'll play again; the possibility the Browns will put him on injured reserve so he can heal completely; or if the team should trade for another veteran quarterback.

Cleveland thought its decades-long search for a QB was over when Watson arrived.

The Browns are still waiting for him.

WHAT'S WORKING

At least Cleveland's errant kicking game has straightened out. Dustin Hopkins gets all the credit.

Hopkins made four more field goals Sunday, becoming the first kicker in league history to convert an attempt of at least 50 yards in five consecutive games. He's 7 of 7 on kicks beyond midfield.

The Browns couldn't have imagined Hopkins being this good when they acquired him just before the season in a trade.

“We don’t want to be kicking too often from 50-plus yards,” Stefanski said. "But the guy just continues to come through for his football team.”

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Cleveland's top-ranked defense took some lumps — in record and reputation.

The Browns gave up a season-high 456 yards — more than double their average — and were plagued by communication breakdowns and bad tackles that allowed the Colts to make numerous explosive plays.

Still, the Browns did generate four turnovers, doubling their total in 2023, leading to 17 points.

STOCK UP

At the moment, Myles Garrett is in a class by himself.

Cleveland's All-Pro defensive end was a one-man wrecking crew. He had nine tackles, two sacks, forced two fumbles, knocked down a pass and made perhaps the league's best play this season — leaping over the Indianapolis line in one motion to block a field goal.

“He played as good as you can play in a football game,” Stefanski said. "I don’t know if there’s a higher level, but he’s playing at it.”

STOCK DOWN

Watson was already a polarizing figure before he got hurt. Now, his toughness is being questioned and there is a segment of Cleveland fans who would be happy if the team cut ties with him.

That won't happen, but every week Watson doesn't play or perform up to standards, the negativity grows.

INJURIES

In addition to Watson, Stefanski indicated the team is awaiting further medical test results on several players. ... RB Jerome Ford injured his ankle in the second half after picking up 74 yards — 69 on a TD run on the game's third play. ... DE Alex Wright suffered a concussion, but Stefanski said he's “trending the right way.”

KEY NUMBER

8-0 — Stefanski's record against the AFC South.

WHAT'S NEXT

Cleveland has a second straight road game, this week at Seattle against the Seahawks (4-2).

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