CLEVELAND: As soon as Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer delivered the dagger against the Cincinnati Bengals, he sprinted toward midfield with an index finger pointed skyward and furiously pumped his fist while the fans roared.
Hoyer had just faked a handoff to running back Willis McGahee and thrown a 1-yard touchdown pass to fullback Chris Ogbonnaya in the right flat with 4:54 left in the fourth quarter. The 12-play, 91-yard scoring drive lifted the Browns to a 17-6 triumph over the Bengals before an announced crowd of 71,481 on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.
A North Olmsted native and St. Ignatius High School graduate, Hoyer couldn’t contain his excitement as he ran to celebrate the defining moment of his first NFL start in Northeast Ohio.
“I think by the time [Ogbonnaya] caught it, I was at the 40-yard line because he was so wide open, so it would have been really embarrassing if he hadn’t caught it,” Hoyer said. “It’s good because we know we capped off a long drive with a touchdown. That’s what you need to win games.”
After beginning the season with a record of 0-2 and trading running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a 2014 first-round draft pick Sept. 18, the Browns have won their past two games to improve to 2-2. They’re now in a three-way tie with the Bengals (2-2) and Baltimore Ravens (2-2) for first place in the AFC North.
“We’re a very hungry team,” Ogbonnaya said. “We’re not satisfied by any means. We think that winning is something that you should become accustomed to. It’s something that we want to be habitual for us, so we just have to continue to work. By no means does this mean that we’re going to continue on and have the greatest team ever, but we also understand that this is a positive step.”
Hoyer has played a vital role in the dramatic turnaround, starting the past two games in place of quarterback Brandon Weeden, who’s sidelined with a sprained right thumb he suffered Sept. 15 against the Ravens. Last week, Hoyer led the Browns to a 31-27 win over the Minnesota Vikings by throwing a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Cameron to cap an 11-play, 55-yard drive with 51 seconds remaining.
In his postgame news conference, Browns coach Rob Chudzinski would not commit to Hoyer as the starter for the upcoming Thursday night home game against the Buffalo Bills (2-2), let alone anoint him as the team’s No. 1 quarterback on a long-term basis. Hoyer, though, has obviously positioned himself well to keep the job moving forward this season.
“He settled in and made some good decisions with throws and made good plays,” Chudzinski said. “Certainly he’s been the spark that I had hoped for and has led us to win the last two games.”
Hoyer completed 25-of-38 passes (65.8 percent) for 269 yards and two touchdowns without an interception against the Bengals, posting a passer rating of 103.9. He is the first quarterback to win his first two starts for the Browns since Mark Rypien in 1994.
“I’m a competitor,” said Hoyer, who began the season third on the depth chart. “I want to be on the field. The decision on who’s playing, that’s not up to me. I just have to do what I can do, put my best foot forward and let coach make that decision.”
Ahead 10-6 after Hoyer threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Cameron in the first quarter, and Billy Cundiff overcame two missed field goals, including one that the Bengals tipped, to make a 51-yard attempt in the third quarter, the Browns started the crucial drive at their 9 with 11:31 left. McGahee had six of his 15 carries for 33 of his 46 rushing yards, and Hoyer completed 5-of-5 passes for 56 yards during the march. Ogbonnaya then beat the coverage of linebacker Vincent Rey and caught the backbreaking touchdown pass from Hoyer, who got the defense pumped up on the sideline.
“They get me fired up too because I’m coming over and they’re all going crazy,” Hoyer said. “And I almost have a headache from the emotional high.”
During the ensuing possession, inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson knocked away a pass from Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to tight end Tyler Eifert. The ball deflected off Eifert, and cornerback Buster Skrine intercepted it at the Bengals’ 35 with 3:43 left.
The Bengals got the ball back once more, and on fourth-and-4 from their 30, Skrine ripped a pass away from wide receiver Marvin Jones to seal the outcome with 1:39 left. Jackson then lifted Skrine over his shoulder to congratulate him.
“It was a good feeling because I knew it was the game,” Skrine said. “They had no opportunity of scoring again. D’Qwell, before the play even started, he said, ‘Let’s just end it right here.’ And then I made the play.”
The defense made plays all day and prevented the Bengals from scoring a touchdown — Mike Nugent’s field goals of 25 and 43 yards accounted for their only points. Cornerback Joe Haden limited Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green to seven catches for 51 yards, and cornerback Chris Owens tallied a strip-sack and a fumble recovery in the third quarter. Dalton completed just 23-of-42 passes (54.8 percent) for 206 yards, the Bengals rushed for only 63 yards on 20 carries (3.2 average) and converted 4-of-14 third downs (29 percent).
“We feel like we have one of the best defenses in the league,” Haden said. “We’re just going to keep fighting and pushing every week to keep proving it.”
The entire team has adopted a similar mentality, and the result is a winning streak.
“We got our spark,” McGahee said. “And we’re trying to make a big flame with it right now.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.