CLEVELAND -- The Browns’ spark had been extinguished.
Quarterback Brian Hoyer lay on the FirstEnergy turf in obvious pain and with possibly torn ligaments in his right knee. He wouldn’t return to lead the team that had only achieved relevance because he had energized it.
But the Browns showed again Thursday night that they have resilience in reserve. Brandon Weeden came off the bench for the first time since college, shook off the rust, made a couple of timely throws and got a ton of help as the Browns persevered to beat the Bills 37-24 at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“We’re a hungry, relentless football team out to prove something and it’s fun to work every single day with these guys because everybody means business,” said Weeden, who was 0-2 as a starter before missing two weeks with a sprained thumb. “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.”
The Browns have won three straight to improve to 3-2 for the first time since 2001. They lead the AFC North by a half-game.
“It’s huge for this young team to win three in a row and keep the momentum going,” tight end Jordan Cameron said.
The victory came with a giant downer. The perfect start to Hoyer’s Browns career was abruptly stopped.
He left the stadium on crutches after the game with the knee immobilized. Coach Rob Chudzinski said he has a sprain and will undergo an MRI today.
NFL Network reported the Browns feared he had torn ligaments, but Chudzinski didn’t want to rush the diagnosis.
“I don’t want to be too premature,” he said. “It’s serious enough to have an MRI.”
On Cleveland’s second drive, Hoyer – a native of North Olmsted and St. Ignatius graduate -- broke a tackle and scrambled for 11 yards. He went into his slide along the Browns sideline, but Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso didn’t stop.
He hit Hoyer in the left side of the helmet with his helmet, and Hoyer’s legs were caught in awkward positions. The right knee appeared to hyperextend, while the left one was caught underneath him. No flag was thrown.
“It’s never good to see your quarterback go down in that fashion,” Cameron said.
“It’s tough,” left tackle Joe Thomas said. “Obviously you can’t dwell on it.”
Hoyer had provided an immeasurable spark after the Browns’ 0-2 start and the trade of Trent Richardson. He led a winning drive in Minnesota, then beat Cincinnati last week. In the locker room Thursday night, he became the first Browns quarterback to win his first three starts since the franchise joined the NFL in 1950.
Weeden finished the job, despite hearing some boos after his first incompletion. He only returned to practice Monday and didn’t get many repetitions in the short work week. Chudzinski didn’t decide until Wednesday afternoon that Weeden would be the backup ahead of Jason Campbell.
Weeden finally found a rhythm in the third quarter with a 47-yard completion to receiver Greg Little on a post pattern, then a 37-yard touchdown to Josh Gordon in single coverage down the left sideline. Gordon fought for the ball and made a juggling catch in the back of the end zone.
It tied the game at 24 after the Bills had regained the lead with two quick touchdowns after halftime. The Browns never quit rallying.
Travis Benjamin’s two long punt returns led to 10 points in the second quarter to flip a 10-0 Buffalo lead into a 17-10 Cleveland advantage. He scored on a 79-yard touchdown and set a franchise record with 179 yards on punt returns.
Weeden, running back Willis McGahee, Gordon and Little turned the 24-17 deficit into a 30-24 lead in the fourth quarter.
Safety T.J. Ward ended the suspense and started a full-blown celebration with a 44-yard interception return for a touchdown with 1:44 left.
“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 tightroping 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 first prime-time game in Cleveland since 2009 – a celebration of Hall of Famer Jim Brown, who received a game ball from Chudzinski -- ended with both starting quarterbacks in the locker room. Bills rookie EJ Manuel was hit on the knee by safety Tashaun Gipson after a scramble and couldn’t return.
Weeden easily won the battle of backups against rookie Jeff Tuel. Weeden talked during the week about the necessity to stay ready – just in case he was needed.
He was needed, and did enough to extend the winning streak.
He went 13-for-24 for 197 yards and a touchdown and was sacked five times. The insurance field goal that made it 30-24 was only possible after a perfect 18-yard throw to Gordon on third-and-18.
Weeden called it his most satisfying win in two years in the NFL and said he never got down despite the demotion.
“I knew I couldn’t, because regardless if I was the starter or not, still being the quarterback of this football team,” he said. “Eyes are on you, see how you respond, how you react. So I was upbeat the entire time, never let it bother me.
“It kind of lit a fire in me, I just need to get going and 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. For the most part I did.”
The Browns also lost defensive end Desmond Bryant, who left with shortness of breath and was taken to the Cleveland Clinic as a precaution. He was hospitalized in Tampa last year with an irregular heartbeat but played the next week.
Chudzinski didn’t have any details on the situation, or know if it was related to last year’s problem. Fullback Chris Ogbonnaya left with a concussion.
The night was about injuries and the quarterbacks, but they weren’t the only stories.
Gordon had four catches for 86 yards and a touchdown. Little had three catches for 71 after not making a play for weeks. McGahee ran hard and finished with 72 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries.
“Another example of how these guys never quit,” Chudzinski said. “We never flinched in this game.”
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