Walker's late turnover highlights Browns' need for Watson return

SEATTLE -- Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt was upset he didn't get the ball on the third-and-3 that could've all but iced the game.

Defensive end Myles Garrett had no problem with coach Kevin Stefanski's decision to call a passing play in that situation.

And afterward, Stefanski himself only lamented the result -- an interception that ricocheted off the helmet of blitzing Seahawks safety Jamal Adams.

Quarterback PJ Walker's third turnover of the game gave the Seattle Seahawks a short field, and they turned it into the game-winning touchdown in a 24-20 comeback victory Sunday over the Browns.

Maybe if the Browns had handed the ball off to Hunt instead, they come away with a third straight win with Walker as their quarterback. Maybe they get stuffed, and Seattle wins anyway.

Maybe if Walker hadn't locked into wide receiver Amari Cooper, he would've seen other receivers, namely tight end David Njoku, were wide open. Maybe if Walker's pass had somehow evaded Adams' helmet, the sure-handed Cooper produces the first-down grab.

But the maybes of that critical failed play overshadowed an obvious takeaway from Lumen Field: Stefanski and the Browns have exhausted every ounce of magic out of Walker.

To have any hope of making a serious run in the hotly contested AFC North, Cleveland (4-3) is going to need quarterback Deshaun Watson to come back soon from his shoulder injury; and when he does, to perform like a franchise quarterback again.

"He's fighting like crazy," said Stefanski after the game of Watson's attempts to return to the field. "He'll be back when he's ready."

Walker couldn't come up with the game-winning drive Sunday like he had in the surprising wins over the San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts. His three turnovers proved costly, especially the final interception, which he said he felt coming "the moment it got tipped." But Walker's play over the past three games has kept Cleveland in the fight as Watson recovers from the rotator cuff strain.

"We were able to fight back as a team and battle," Walker said. "Just shows the grit and grind we got in this locker room. As a group we're just gonna continue to be resilient."

In his first loss with the Browns, Walker delivered his best overall game. Though he only completed 15 of 31 passes, he threw for 248 yards and a touchdown and made several plays with his feet, rushing for another 27 yards.

A series of timely plays -- and timely Seattle penalties -- helped Cleveland dominate the time of possession, 37 to 23 minutes. But the Browns couldn't come through when they needed one more offensive play to put the game away.

"That's disappointing," Stefanski said. "There's going to be plays that you want back. But you're also looking to try to give your guys the best chance to make a play."

The Browns gave up three first-round picks to trade for Watson and signed him to a record $230 million fully guaranteed contract. The expectation was he could make those game-clinching plays in the fourth quarter. But Watson has been unable to do so to this point. And since Week 3, he hasn't been able to play.

Stefanski couldn't say whether Watson will return to practice this week after focusing this past week on rehabilitating the shoulder. But after next Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland's season-defining stretch is around the corner: a road trip to the Baltimore Ravens on Nov. 12 followed by a home bout against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Browns have already lost to both division foes and will likely need to defeat both the Ravens and Steelers this time around to have a realistic chance of capturing its first division title since 1989. They currently have the third-best odds to win the AFC North, according to Ceasars.

Though he came up short Sunday, Walker's late-game magic has helped keep the Browns within striking distance in the division. Now it's time for the Browns' bet on Watson to begin paying off. Otherwise, Cleveland's season might ultimately come up short, too.