Jason Campbell dressed slowly and walked deliberately through the Browns’ locker room Sunday, grimacing as he attempted to take deep breaths.
When he finally reached the podium, the 31-year-old quarterback couldn’t stop himself from wheezing slightly as he spoke.
The pain, though, was temporary — and well worth it — to Campbell.
“I wasn’t coming out of the game today,” he said, forcing a weak smile. “It was a must-win game. Both teams had to win, so they were going to have to drag me off the field.
“I did tell the guys my ribs were really bothering me, and they needed to give me some time to make plays, but this league is all about pushing on. That’s all that I did.”
Actually, Campbell did it all in leading Cleveland to a 24-18 victory over the Baltimore Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The savvy veteran completed 23 of 35 passes for 262 yards, a career-high-tying three touchdowns and a sparkling 116.6 passer rating.
Making those numbers even more impressive, the majority occurred after Campbell suffered bruised (and potentially broken) ribs on a late hit by Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata in the first quarter.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder said he feared the worst when Ngata landed on top of him — and Campbell landed on top of the ball — but vowed to return for the next series, no matter what.
“You guys know how I feel about Jason and how he’s a tough guy and he’s a team guy. You can just tell,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “There was no way he was going to come out of that game. He was going to keep playing, and I can’t reiterate how huge the plays were that he made down the stretch.”
The former Redskins and Raiders starter didn’t throw an interception while making play after play against one of the NFL’s most feared defenses. The temperature may have been chilly for the late-afternoon game, but his decision-making was red hot.
Tops on Campbell’s hit list was a fourth-and-1 conversion at the Baltimore 43 with 3:12 left. With Cleveland clinging to a 21-18 lead, he stepped up in the pocket and tossed an intentionally low dart to wide receiver Davone Bess for a 3-yard gain.
Later in the drive, Campbell eluded the rush just long enough to make an awkward push pass to Chris Ogbonnaya for a 17-yard gain. That play allowed the Browns to run the clock down to 17 seconds before sending Billy Cundiff on for a 22-yard field goal.
“Jason Campbell played exceptionally well,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. “We couldn’t keep him corralled in the pocket like we needed to. He was moving around, scrambling, making plays. That last play on fourth-and-1, I think, is a good representation of how he played. Give him a lot of credit.”
Campbell played so well in his third appearance with Cleveland, one can make a strong argument that it was the best-played game by a Browns quarterback in at least two years.
Perhaps even longer, because he was the main reason struggling wideouts Greg Little and Bess had their most productive games in 2013, combining for 10 catches and two touchdowns.
Campbell displayed a knack for hitting his receivers in stride, and showed fleet feet while scrambling out of the pocket to rush for 20 yards. It was similar to his quality work one week earlier in Kansas City, but different, because it wound up as a win.
“He’s a pro’s pro, there’s nothing else you can say about Jason,” Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden said. “He’s out there handling his business, and every time the offense moves the ball like that, that gives us the juice to go out there and give the ball back to them. I actually think we as a defense are more excited about it than he is.”
Campbell would likely disagree, if only he had the strength to argue after being hit like a pinata for the better part of four quarters.
Fortunately for the Browns, they’re heading into their bye week, so he has 14 days to recover before playing at AFC North Division leader Cincinnati.
“If we had to play next Sunday, who knows?” Campbell said, chuckling about his availability for a pretend Week 10 game. “I’m pretty sure I would though. Actually, I would. I know I would find a way.”