CLEVELAND -- When PJ Walker found out he would start at quarterback for the Cleveland Browns on Sunday against the undefeated San Francisco 49ers, he called Cleveland's backup quarterback from last season.
Jacoby Brissett, now with the Washington Commanders after starting 11 games for the Browns in 2022, had one piece of advice for Walker: If wideout Amari Cooper wins at the line of scrimmage, "just throw it to him."
Walker did just that. And a big throw to Cooper, coupled with a heroic defensive effort, helped ignite one of the most improbable results of this NFL season: Cleveland's 19-17 victory over previously undefeated San Francisco behind a third-string quarterback.
"Proud of our team. Proud of the fight," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "We knew what we were in for. We knew the challenge. We knew how good that team is. ... The truth is, we're a good football team. We're not perfect. But we fought like crazy today."
The 49ers entered the game off a 42-10 rout of the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday night. They had scored 30 or more points in eight consecutive regular-season games. San Francisco running back Christian McCaffrey was in the MVP discussion after scoring eight touchdowns in the first five games. Quarterback Brock Purdy led the NFL in QBR, hadn't thrown an interception and had never lost a regular-season game as a starter. And the 49ers, who had a franchise record 15-game regular-season winning streak, were a clear No. 1 in ESPN's power rankings.
The Browns lost star running back Nick Chubb in Week 2 to a season-ending left knee injury. When $230 million quarterback Deshaun Watson was ruled out for the second straight game with an injury to his throwing shoulder, the point spread, according to Caesars, rose from the 49ers being favored by 4.5 points when the week started to 9.5 by kickoff.
But the Browns never backed down.
That started with pregame warmups, when San Francisco receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk irked Cleveland's defensive backs by running through their drills. That led to a midfield skirmish involving both teams.
Samuel and Aiyuk began with shoving Browns safety Juan Thornhill. As Cleveland receiver Elijah Moore got involved, 49ers left tackle Trent Williams came barreling in and knocked Moore's helmet off before tensions finally cooled.
The Browns, however, took the pregame antics personally.
"Don't poke the bear," said cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. "We're going to defend our home turf. ... we don't take any disrespect."
Here's how the game unfolded through the eyes of the players and coaches who made it happen.
THE NINERS WASTED no time jumping out to a quick lead. They scored a touchdown on the opening drive on a 13-yard pass from Purdy to McCaffrey. That lead grew to 10-0 after Jake Moody hit a 25-yard field goal with 7:54 left in the first half.
But the Browns defense tightened up, flustering the Niners offense with constant pressure. And for the first time in his young career, Purdy struggled, missing open receivers.
Kyle Shanahan, 49ers coach: We went in thinking it was going to be a grimy game, like it was.
Myles Garrett, Browns defensive end: We know we can bang with anybody. ... That's that swagger. That's that swagger (first-year defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz) has brought and helped bring out of us.
Stefanski: They brought the energy all week. They were so excited for this challenge, and I thought Jim put those guys in position to go make plays.
Walker: Our defense had a point to prove today. They did a helluva job giving us as an offense an opportunity.
Purdy: Obviously, we scored on the first drive, but we ran the ball a lot. For me, it's like 'All right, let's get into a rhythm, let's hit the guys when they're open, let's move the chains and put up points.' That was my mentality the whole game, every drive even though I'm missing throws. ... At the end of the day, I feel like I just didn't play the game I needed to.
Grant Delpit, Browns safety: We saw what they were trying to do (on that first drive). Saw their game plan. And we adjusted.
Purdy: It's the NFL, you get opportunities, you've got to take advantage of them. There were definitely some throws and opportunities that I feel like were there for me, and I missed on them and made us get behind the sticks, and then you have to get a third down, which is tough on the road here.
Garrett: We had him really frazzled. He was a little bit anxious in the pocket and moving around a lot.
Walker heeded Brissett's pregame instruction to get the Browns' offense going. Cooper beat his man off the line of scrimmage and Walker heaved the ball up to the receiver, who broke loose for a 58-yard reception, setting up Cleveland's first and only touchdown.
Stefanski: (Walker) made some throws, he made some plays, he ran the show. He's a battler. A tough kid.
Cooper: (Walker) has been around the league for a long time. I knew our connection would be good when he came up midweek and told me he called Jacoby during the week. That told me all I needed to know about (Walker).
Walker: Coop did a hell of a job winning on the route and just give him a chance to go make a play. He did the rest from there. It was all Coop.
That was all the Browns defense needed. Emerson intercepted Purdy to begin the second half -- Purdy's first in 248 pass attempts. Then Cleveland forced four more three-and-outs to give the 49ers' offense adversity it hadn't yet seen in 2023.
Purdy: (The interception) was just a bad ball on my end. (Aiyuk) did a great job. He beat (Emerson) whoever was guarding him. He had all the separation in the world to be able to beat him and convert the first down. So, that was on me.
Emerson: That turnover let them know that we're different. You haven't seen anybody like this 11 all year.
Garrett: I got a piece of the ball as it was coming out.
Greg Newsome II, Browns cornerback: We say it all the time, we're the best in the world. As a defense, and particularly as a secondary. For M.J. to get his first career pick there was amazing.
Garrett: It was huge, man. Just showing that we're here, we're unrelenting. No, we're not going anywhere. So, one play is one play, but that's behind us and we're going to keep on attacking all day.
George Kittle, 49ers tight end: We played behind the sticks, we played right into their hands. They were able to just tee off on our O-line the whole time, bring a ton of pressure and just not give Brock a lot of time. That's what they wanted to do. It's hard to execute longer routes and stuff like that when they're just piling down on you.
With Cleveland's defense already making life difficult, it didn't get any easier for the Niners because of injuries to two key playmakers. Samuel departed with a shoulder issue in the first quarter and McCaffrey left with an oblique and rib injury late in the third quarter. Neither player returned.
Shanahan: We made way too many mistakes on offense. Losing a couple guys in the game, we had to switch a couple guys around and we weren't quite ready for that, which starts with me with too many mistakes.
Purdy: Obviously they're playmakers, really good playmakers, so it hurts. But at the same time we have got guys to be able to come in and make plays too. That's on me being able to help out the guys. ... giving them some sort of expectation of what's to come in terms of the play and stuff. That's something I've got to be better at.
Nick Bosa, 49ers defensive end: You're going to have to deal with injuries. It happens to every team at certain points. I think we got out of it pretty good but we lost some guys and we need to be more ready to adjust when we do lose guys. I'm sure every single person has multiple plays that they would want back.
A FLURRY OF penalty flags and mistakes gave both teams opportunities to win the game late. Deommodore Lenoir's interception of Walker set up a touchdown to give the 49ers a 17-13 lead with 10:58 left in the fourth quarter. But Walker bounced back to engineer back-to-back field goal drives.
Walker: You're going to make mistakes, but can you overcome mistakes? Because you'll get another opportunity right after that. For me, it's always about bouncing back. ... just keep going.
Stefanski: I knew what PJ was about. And then I just figured that kid's been fighting for everything his whole life, his whole career and that's kind of what we needed.
Ogbo Okoronkwo, Browns defensive end: (Walker) didn't blink, he didn't flinch once.
A controversial unnecessary roughness call on third down on 49ers safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. kept Cleveland's final drive alive.
Shanahan: My view (on the unnecessary roughness penalty) was (Gipson's) intent wasn't at all to do that. It looked like they touched helmets (Gibson and Moore) from where I was, so I don't have much of an opinion. It didn't look that violent.
Fred Warner, 49ers linebacker: If they call it then that's what they're going to call at the end of the day. ... Our mentality is always next play, best play mentality every single time we step out there, so I wasn't worried about it one bit.
Walker: We knew what they was going to do defensively. They wasn't going to give us opportunity to go over the top, so we were just trying to find ways to get the ball into our receiver's hands and let them make plays. We had a big fourth-down conversion (on the first of the two field goal drives) to David Bell, which was huge. And I think that right there just kept it going.
Warner: They gave us another opportunity down there by calling that play and by him trying to force it in there to make a play. But you go down the entire game, we had opportunities in all four quarters. To say that that was the one that could have won or lost it, that's ticky-tack, you could say that about anything.
Later, San Francisco's missed interception opportunity (both Gipson and linebacker Oren Burks had a chance for the pick) in the end zone gave Browns kicker Dustin Hopkins the chance to nail a 29-yard field goal to put Cleveland up 19-17 with 1:40 to play.
Walker: That was a terrible mistake by me. That right there was something that I knew I shouldn't have (done). Came back to the sideline, told Kev, I shouldn't have made a stupid decision like that. . ... But we made the field goal at the end of it.
Garrett: We knew (Walker) would come up big for us when the moment came, and he sure did.
DESPITE THE INJURIES, penalties and missed opportunities, the 49ers had an opportunity to steal a victory in the closing moments. Moody had one miss all season (a 54-yarder that went left in the first quarter) and the Niners believed if they could put together a drive, he would take them home. The two-minute drill helped Purdy and the offense finally find a rhythm.
Purdy: We got up to the ball and ran some plays that we were all comfortable with and just [got] the ball to the playmakers, get it in their hands. (Aiyuk) did a great job of creating separation and getting some space and making guys miss. Just the tempo felt good.
Garrett: It seemed like (Purdy) had finally settled in. I was thinking, 'Damn, Brock is getting (the ball) out fast.' And a lot of respect for him because he kept to his routine. That takes a lot for a young guy to do, not to be bothered by the pass rush and to keep on getting the ball out and putting it on the money like that. We were making plays, they got down and it was you know, who wants to make this last play?
Kittle: Kyle can dial up some great plays, Aiyuk made a great play, Jauan (Jennings) was making plays and that's Niner football. Unfortunately we just didn't play a lot of it today.
With about 40 seconds left, Shanahan opted to run the clock down, call a spike and attempt a 41-yard field goal with nine seconds and a timeout remaining -- instead of trying to gain more yards for Moody.
Purdy: Honestly we trust in Jake. He has a great leg. He's been great all year. Kyle, that's something he saw that we were good where we were at and we trusted in Jake to make the kick.
Shanahan: We wanted to leave it there in case there was a bad snap or something so we could spike it and have another play. That's just what we felt.
Walker: I was sitting next to Coop and DTR (Dorian Thompson-Robinson) and I told him that he was going to miss it.
Garrett: We were rushing our ass off on that last special teams play. I didn't get to see it go in or not go in. When I went down to the ground, I just heard the crowd go wild and my boys started sprinting, so instinctively I started sprinting.
Moody: I just didn't hit it great. That also happens. It's just unfortunate that it happened then.
Shanahan: It's always tough to miss that last kick but that happens in football. They played better than us today. That was the last play but there was a lot more today than just that.
Walker: It meant the world. Being in a situation I was in a couple of months ago in Chicago being released. I feel like I'm in a great place. I'm in a better place.
Garrett: When the chips are down and odds are against you, you have to make the most of what you got. We played the best we could with the cards we were dealt -- and made the most out of it.