There were 908 total yards, 53 first downs and five lead changes.
There also was a big decision, one that remains part of what Brandon Staley is all about — even when his Chargers’ failure is precious fuel to his howling critics.
With the game there to be won Sunday, Staley opted to go for a first down on a late fourth-down play near midfield. When Justin Herbert’s pass fell incomplete, Cleveland received a golden final chance.
Despite that play going wrong, the day ended up going right for the visitors when Browns kicker Cade York missed a 54-yard field-goal attempt wide right in the closing seconds, allowing the Chargers to escape 30-28.
“We believe in our process,” Staley said afterward. “We believe in our players on both sides. We were coming out here on the road to win this game. Not kick it, and then go hope to win.”
As a rookie head coach last season, Staley earned a reputation for his aggressive fourth-down choices, many of which aided in victories while others infamously blew up, mostly notable in two prime-time showcases.
Just a week ago in a one-score game at Houston, Staley went for a fourth and two from the Chargers’ 45-yard line, the conversion leading to a late touchdown to seal the victory.
On Sunday, the Chargers had fourth and one at their 46 with 1:14 left. Staley could have opted to punt, forcing Cleveland deep into its territory with no timeouts left.
Instead, he decided to keep the ball in Herbert’s hands, the Chargers calling for a pass to Mike Williams, knowing a first down would allow them to kneel out the rest of the clock.
Cleveland cornerback Denzel Ward, a two-time Pro Bowl player, was out of the game because of a concussion. The Browns had rookie cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. on Williams.
“Twenty-three on 81,” Staley said, using the players’ jersey numbers. “We liked it.”
Williams broke off the line of scrimmage on a slant, but Emerson jumped inside and cut him off. With the two running face to face, the ball deflected and dropped to the turf.
“We felt like they couldn’t stop us on the outside,” Williams said. “He went inside on the snap. There wasn’t really anywhere for me to go. He just guessed right. They had a pretty good call for that play.”
Staley, as he has done repeatedly throughout his 22 games as Chargers head coach, explained he wanted to finish on his team’s terms and believed 100% in his decision.
As for the fourth-down models that forecast potential outcomes, two of the most prominent — ESPN and Ben Baldwin — favored going for it. Next Gen Stats had the choice closer to 50/50.
“The storybook would have been just to finish it right there and walk to victory lane,” Staley said. “But that’s not how it went. We had to go play defense. We had to go defend, and our defense ended up winning us the game.”
With no timeouts and forced to throw on a day the Browns would rush for 213 yards, Jacoby Brissett completed one of four passes for 10 yards. Cleveland did attempt one run, Kareem Hunt stopped by safety Derwin James Jr. for no gain.
That left York with a 54-yard attempt amid the winds of FirstEnergy Stadium.
With Staley crouching on the sideline and peering at the field over his play sheet, York’s kick drifted just to the right of the upright.
“I believed our defense would get a stop if we didn’t make it because I knew that we could cover them,” Staley said. “You gotta live with it when it doesn’t go down.”
The Chargers both lived and won with it Sunday, thanks largely to an offense that entered last in the league at running the ball before breaking out for 238 rushing yards, 173 of which belonged to Austin Ekeler.
Staley presented a game ball to the offensive line afterward, citing specifically right tackle Trey Pipkins III, who battled his way back into the game after leaving because of a leg injury.
“Our O-line came alive today,” Staley said. “And our runners — Ekeler, [Joshua] Kelley — those guys were flying out there, just running with a purpose.”
Ekeler scored one touchdown on the ground and another through the air, giving him five scores over the last two games. Kelley carried 10 times for 49 yards and also reached the end zone.
The Chargers’ other points came from someone who wasn’t on the team until late last week. Kicker Taylor Bertolet, filling in for the injured Dustin Hopkins and making his NFL debut, had three field goals and three extra points.
He, too, received a game ball.
“Just another football game, really,” Bertolet said. “It’s going to be a little bit louder. That’s the only difference. Well, that and there’s a little more on the line.”
It was all on the line late Sunday and Staley stuck to his beliefs, the Chargers surviving even if the ending wasn’t storybook.