CLEVELAND: The Browns want to prove their dramatic turnaround isn’t a fluke, and they took a significant step toward accomplishing that mission by overcoming adversity to make a dramatic statement Thursday night on a grand stage.
“It’s a great turnaround for this city,” wide receiver Josh Gordon said. “It’s exactly what we’ve been striving for -- for people to just notice us as something else. We’ve been wanting to turn that page in this city, and I think that’s exactly what we’re working for.”
The Browns’ 37-24 win over the Buffalo Bills, though, was bittersweet because quarterback Brian Hoyer suffered a potential season-ending right knee injury early in the first quarter.
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski told NFL Network at halftime that he fears Hoyer tore knee ligaments. In his postgame news conference, Chudzinski called the injury a sprain and said doctors will evaluate whether Hoyer tore ligaments after he undergoes an MRI Friday. Hoyer left the stadium wearing a leg brace and using crutches after celebrating the victory with his teammates in the locker room.
In Hoyer’s absence, quarterback Brandon Weeden completed 13-of-24 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. In his first game action since he suffered a sprained right thumb Sept. 15 against the Baltimore Ravens, Weeden finished with a passer rating of 95.3.
“[Hoyer has] been a big part of what we’ve done the last couple of weeks,” Chudzinski said. “I think it was a little bit of a shock for the guys at first. But Brandon came in and played real well. I think the guys rallied around him.”
In their first prime-time game since 2009, the Browns triumphed in front of an announced crowd of 71,239 at FirstEnergy Stadium and a national television audience on NFL Network.
“It’s good for people to see what we’re about and how resilient we really are,” said tight end Jordan Cameron, whose 33 receptions are the most by any Browns player in team history through the first five games of a season. “I think our team has shown a lot of that throughout the year. The last three weeks, we’ve kind of overcome the odds. We’re just showing that we’re a great team. We stick together. And in the end, that’s all that really matters is believing in ourselves and keeping close.”
After starting the season with a record of 0-2, the Browns are now 3-2 for the first time since 2001. They also have their first winning record since they edged the Miami Dolphins by a point and improved to 2-1 on Sept. 25, 2011.
Weeden called the win the most satisfying of his career.
“This football team has played great for the last two weeks, and I think to come in and keep that train moving in the right direction [was important],” said Weeden, the 22nd overall pick in last year’s draft. “We’re a hungry, relentless football team. This team is out to prove something and it’s fun to work every single day with these guys because everybody means business. We’re a close-knit group. So to win one like this on Thursday night, on national television, it’s big for our locker room.”
Despite dealing with a strained right quadriceps, kicker Billy Cundiff made 3-of-3 field goals, including attempts of 24 and 44 yards in the fourth quarter. After Cundiff made his final field goal with 2:19 remaining, Browns strong safety T.J. Ward cut in front of Bills wide receiver Robert Woods, intercepted a pass from backup quarterback Jeff Tuel, returned it 44 yards for a touchdown with 1:44 left and jumped into the stands to celebrate.
“It was a rush,” Ward said. “When I caught it, I had to tell myself to run almost. I tried to save us as much time by tight roping the goal line, but I just went over. Just to see the fans and get the feeling of my first pick-six, I just had to Lambeau Leap.”
The Browns now have sole possession of first place in the AFC North, at least until the Cincinnati Bengals (2-2) and Ravens (2-2) get a chance to tie them in the standings Sunday when they play the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins, respectively.
“It’s great. We’ve got to keep it rolling, though,” said Cameron, who had three catches for 36 yards. “It’s a long, long season. It’s definitely a marathon. So we’ve just got to keep this momentum.”
Although the Browns earned their fifth three-game winning streak since 1999, injuries to Hoyer and starting right defensive end Desmond Bryant diminished the mood. Bryant, who entered Thursday with a team-high 3½ sacks, was removed from the game because of shortness of breath and was taken to the Cleveland Clinic for precautionary reasons. Chudzinski said Bryant has not experienced shortness of breath before and will undergo an MRI Friday.
Hoyer led the Browns to back-to-back wins after they lost two in a row to start the season, though his storybook season took an unfortunate turn during the offense’s seventh play against the Bills (2-3). Hoyer was hurt after he scrambled and ran for an 11-yard gain. As he attempted to slide to avoid contact, his left leg became caught underneath him and his right knee hyper-extended as rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso hit him in the helmet.
Weeden immediately replaced Hoyer with 11:13 left in the first quarter. Weeden’s injury in Week 2 opened the door for Hoyer, a North Olmsted native and St. Ignatius High School graduate, to become the starter.
Medical personnel examined Hoyer on the field for a few moments before further checking him on a trainer’s table on the Browns’ sideline. Hoyer then walked with a limp to the locker room alongside trainers and never returned.
“We definitely don’t want to see any teammate go down like that, especially with Hoyer,” said Gordon, who finished with four catches for 86 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown. “He’s a great guy. I hope he comes back healthy. But deflated, no. If anything, it fired us up because we know we have to bounce back from it. People were expecting great things from this team. We couldn’t just let our heads down and quit from that point and let everybody down. So we needed to come out here and prove something.
“You never want to see a guy go down, a teammate go down. It’s heartbreaking. But we got just as much trust in Hoyer as we do in Weeden and vice versa. Those are both our guys, we play with both of them, work with them, grind with them, sweat with them everyday. So regardless who’s at quarterback, it’s not like we favor one more than the other. We need to go out there regardless and go out there and get the win. It’s a team effort.”
After the Browns fell behind 10-0, wide receiver Travis Benjamin’s big punt returns, including a 79-yard touchdown, helped them charge back with 17 unanswered points and capture a seven-point halftime advantage. Benjamin finished with 179 yards on seven punt returns, breaking the previous single-game franchise record of 166 yards set by Eric Metcalf on Oct. 24, 1993.
“It means a lot, knowing that I can come in and give my team great field position and make that play,” Benjamin said. “[I want to] be a game changer to put my team up on top.”
The Bills, though, fired back in the third quarter and built a 24-17 lead with C.J. Spiller’s 54-yard touchdown run and Fred Jackson’s second 1-yard touchdown of the game. Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel was knocked out of the game and replaced by Tuel between the two touchdowns when free safety Tashaun Gipson hit his right knee as he ran along the Bills’ sideline with 8:16 left in the third quarter.
“Obviously you can’t dwell on it because you don’t end the game when your quarterback goes down,” Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said. “Both sides lost their starting quarterback, so the next man in just has to just come in and do his best, move the ball down the field just as if he was the first guy up.”
The Browns rallied and tied the score 24-24 when Gordon beat cornerback Aaron Williams on a fly route and caught a 37-yard touchdown pass from Weeden with 5:35 left in the third quarter. They later drove and faced first-and-goal from the Bills’ 1 but settled for Cundiff’s 24-yard field goal that gave them a 27-24 edge with 12:31 left in the fourth quarter. They led the rest of the way.
On third-and-18 from the Browns’ 35-yard line, Weeden completed an 18-yard pass to Gordon on an out route to earn a crucial first down with about five minutes remaining. Five plays later, Cundiff nailed his final field goal from 44 yards.
“At first, he was a little rusty,” Cameron said of Weeden. “I think he shook that off and really got us going. He made some great passes, some deep balls that really connected with [wide receiver] Greg [Little] and Josh that really helped us. That third-down conversion to Josh was a huge play for our team and put us in field-goal range.
“I’ve always had 100 percent confidence in [Weeden] and his abilities. He does a great job. The opportunities were there and he stepped up huge. It was a prime-time game. He didn’t come into this game as a starter. He’s battled the last three weeks, and he came in and he made huge plays in pivotal points in the game.”
On Monday, Chudzinski named Hoyer the starter against the Bills, even though Weeden had been medically cleared to play. Weeden, who’s 0-2 as a starter this season, insisted that he didn’t let the situation drag him down.
“I was upbeat the entire time, never let it bother me,” Weeden said. “It kind of lit a fire in me. I just need to get going, stay hungry. I couldn’t take any days off. I still needed to prepare, still needed to watch tape at night, just in case something unfortunate happens, like tonight. And I think I handled it as well as I possibly could.”
The Browns were bullied early and finally countered when Benjamin returned a punt 57 yards. Punter Shawn Powell was the last line of defense, and he pushed Benjamin out of bounds at the Bills’ 31. Seven plays later, the Browns settled for Cundiff’s 30-yard field goal that trimmed their deficit to 10-3 with 14:24 left in the second quarter.
During their next possession, the Browns marched 74 yards in 14 plays. Running back Willis McGahee capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run, enabling the Browns to tie the score 10-10 with 3:52 remaining in the first half. It was the team’s first rushing touchdown of the season.
“This group of guys, they’re a special group,” said McGahee, who had 26 carries for 72 yards (2.8 average). “We may be young, but they’ve got heart and they’re going to fight. They’re not going to lay down. Not only that, but they’ve got the taste of winning, so with that, that’s going to carry over. We’re going to do whatever it takes.”
The defense then held the Bills to a three-and-out, and Benjamin returned the subsequent punt 79 yards for a touchdown to give the Browns a 17-10 lead with 2:20 left before halftime. During the return, Benjamin caught the ball at the Browns’ 21, sprinted to his left and raced along his team’s sideline. He encountered Powell again, but he used a juke move, ran through the punter’s attempt at an arm tackle and later spun away from linebacker Nigel Bradham. Rookie safety Josh Aubrey delivered a key block to ensure Benjamin would reach the end zone.
In the end, the Browns overcame an early deficit and a serious injury to the quarterback who gave them a spark and helped reverse their fortunes.
“This is a different team, it’s a different feel, it’s a different vibe,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “We feel like that at any time, we can come back.”
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.