CLEVELAND: As Billy Winn stood in front of his locker Sunday evening, he clutched a football, stared at it and reflected on what it symbolizes.
“I’m definitely gonna frame this,” Winn said. “It’s gonna sit where I can see it every day. Somewhere in the house, somewhere in the locker room where I can see it because these things don’t come every day. This was a gift.”
Winn’s fumble recovery and subsequent 35-yard return late in the fourth quarter sealed the Browns’ first of the season, a 34-24 triumph over the Cincinnati Bengals. As the 6-foot-4, 295-pound rookie defensive tackle rumbled toward the Dawg Pound, he left the Browns’ 11-game losing streak in his dust.
With their first win since Nov. 20, 2011, the Browns avoided setting a record for the most consecutive losses in franchise history. They ensured Jimmy Haslam III won’t be crowned owner of the NFL’s only winless team after his purchase of the Browns (1-5) is approved at the league’s meeting Tuesday in Chicago. As Randy Lerner’s era as majority owner ended, Haslam made rounds in the locker room after the game, shaking hands with players and congratulating them.
They were hugging. They were smiling. They were finally winners thanks to a 21-point outburst in the fourth quarter highlighted by cornerback Sheldon Brown’s 19-yard interception return for a touchdown and the offense’s revival.
“Oh my goodness, it was like a big weight off of everybody’s shoulders,” said cornerback Joe Haden, who returned from his four-game suspension and made an immediate impact with seven tackles, three passes defensed and an interception. “It felt like we won the Super Bowl, honestly. Once you get the first one out of the way, I feel like it becomes a lot easier, and people want to get used to this feeling.”
Trailing by 10 points, the Bengals (3-3) drove to the Browns’ 9-yard line with 2:39 left in the fourth quarter. On second-and-goal, Browns right defensive end Emmanuel Stephens bolted around the edge and strip-sacked quarterback Andy Dalton. Winn scooped up the fumble, and the Browns held on to end their drought.
Coach Pat Shurmur captured his first win in the AFC North — he’s now 1-8. The victory also snapped the Browns’ 12-game losing streak against divisional foes.
“You put a bunch of men together to go out and play a game so that you can feel the joy of winning,” Shurmur said. “So when it happens, it’s terrific. Not so much for me, but for my family, the players, really everybody who goes to work on Monday morning. Mondays feel better when you win a game.”
The Browns trailed 14-7 at halftime and cut their deficit to one point in the third quarter after Josh Cribbs’ 60-yard punt return and Haden’s 14-yard interception return set up Phil Dawson’s successful field goals of 41 and 38 on a windy afternoon.
Then after failing to gain a first down on seven consecutive possessions, the offense came to life. Running back Montario Hardesty filled in for rookie Trent Richardson, who suffered an injury to his right side/rib area in the first quarter, and had a diving 1-yard touchdown plunge that capped a 10-play, 66-yard drive with 14:56 left in the fourth quarter. Hardesty had his first significant playing time of the season and finished with 15 carries for 56 yards.
The Bengals countered with Mike Nugent’s 44-yard field goal on the next series, but the Browns fired back right away. Cribbs returned a kickoff 44 yards and Hardesty had runs of 14, 4 and 5 yards before rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden connected with tight end Jordan Cameron for a 23-yard completion on third-and-1 at the Bengals’ 26. Weeden then found tight end Benjamin Watson wide open in the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown pass with 8:00 remaining.
“To get a taste of winning a game at this level, it’s good for a psyche,” said Weeden, who completed 17-of-29 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns with an interception on his 29th birthday. “It’s good for the locker room. It’s good for everybody, the morale. We’re gonna have confidence going forward.”
After Watson’s touchdown, Brown picked off Dalton’s pass on the next play from scrimmage. The Bengals, though, didn’t call off their attack. Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green connected for their second touchdown of the game, a 57-yard completion, and sliced the Browns’ advantage to 10 points with 5:21 left.
The Bengals later positioned themselves to cut their deficit to a field goal, though Stephens’ sack and Winn’s fumble recovery ended any legitimate threat. The laces on the ball Winn held by his locker after the game were marked to commemorate his clutch play that ended the suffocating streak.
“You really have to appreciate winning when you lose,” strong safety T.J. Ward said. “It was a tough five weeks for us. We knew we were going to get over the hump.”
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.