By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
Updated at 6:33 p.m.
Their hometown quarterback had the game of his life. Their big-play receiver paid restitution for a two-game suspension. Their defense held the best running back of his time to no run longer than nine yards.
In the end, though, it was Rob Chudzinski who made the biggest statement of the day with his first victory as Browns coach, 31-27, over the Minnesota Vikings.
Pulling out all the stops, Chudzinski proved to everybody that his team wasn’t quitting on him or itself – even as competing networks tripped over each other reporting rumors of a fire sale of unwanted players begun by team management.
“We’re never going to quit – the guys in this room or myself,” Chudzinski said.
To which Browns fans fearing another year of double-digit losses must have said, “Tank you very much.”
“This is a clear sign to people that we’re not tanking anything,” said linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who had a team-high 10 tackles in helping to hold Adrian Peterson to 88 yards and a 3.5-yard average, and also stripped a fumble of the frustrated reigning league MVP.
Receiver Josh Gordon had 10 catches (on 19 targets) for 146 yards and one touchdown, plus an end-around run of 22 yards, in his first game back from his league suspension.
Tight end Jordan Cameron had six catches and three touchdowns, including the game-winner on a 7-yard fade over safety Harrison Smith with 55 seconds left.
In his final pep talk the night before, Chudzinski urged his players to spark something to get the team out of its rut. The offense had scored one TD and 16 points in starting yet another season 0-2.
“Everybody was feeling it,” Gordon said.
But the biggest spark was lit by Hoyer, who had a storybook debut in his first game as Browns quarterback.
Hoyer battled back from the adversity of three interceptions and orchestrated only the second Browns victory in Minnesota in history. He faced down the Vikings, who held three backs substituting for the traded Trent Richardson to a collective 49 yards on 14 carries and dared him – the Browns’ No. 3 quarterback – to beat them.
And he did it inside one of the loudest dome stadiums in sports, where a decibel reading of 118 makes it sound like standing next to a jet engine upon takeoff.
“You can barely hear what’s going on in the huddle,” said left tackle Joe Thomas.
Yet Hoyer was unflappable, throwing 54 times and completing 30 for 321 yards. He was sacked three times. The interceptions reduced his passer rating to 68.5, but it was one of the heroic games by a Browns quarterback among the 19 who have started since 1999.
“Brian Hoyer, I can’t really say enough about the guy,” said Gordon. “He’s a firebrand. He can really rally the guys around him.”
“He did a great job throwing and getting everybody organized and throwing it on time,” Thomas said. “That makes everybody better. And, obviously, having Josh Gordon back was huge for us.”
Hoyer was just as unflappable after the game, never letting the emotions of the moment get to him. Imagine growing up in Cleveland, playing at St. Ignatius High School, and then leading the Browns to an unimaginable win in his first start. The burden of proving to the team – and its fans – that the season was not lost fell on the quarterback’s shoulders.
“I just hope I didn’t put my wife into labor by having it end the way it did,” Hoyer joked. His wife is expecting the couple’s second baby on Oct. 21.
“But it will definitely go down as something special. You guys ask me a million times, ‘Does it mean more playing for your hometown team?’ Yes, obviously, it does, and to win and get that first win is huge. Now, hopefully we can just build on it and keep it rolling.”
The Vikings (0-3) cranked up the noise level with a touchdown on their first possession. But Hoyer responded with two TDs on his first two series.
By the end of the first half, the Browns built a 24-17 lead on the strength of a run for a first down by upback Josh Aubrey on a fake punt and then an 11-yard TD pass from placement holder/punter Spencer Lanning to Cameron on a fake field goal.
“That’s always going to be our mentality,” said Chudzinski. “We are going to be aggressive.”
Things got hairy for the Browns in the third quarter. The Vikings’ rush heated up and forced two Hoyer interceptions. Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder, who was booed throughout the contest, capitalized on only one for a touchdown – his second run to the end zone on the day. A field goal then gave the Vikings a 27-24 lead with 5:14 to go – their first since the opening drive.
Jackson said the interceptions weren’t deflating to the defense “because we were moving the ball.”
After the defense forced a Ponder three-and-out, Hoyer took over at the Browns’ 45 with 3:21 left. Unbeknownst to many, kicker Billy Cundiff had pulled a groin muscle during the second half and was unavailable to try a game-tying field goal.
“I was thinking we need a touchdown,” Hoyer said. “I told those guys in the huddle, ‘Let’s just go win it right here.’”
In eight plays, Hoyer took the Browns to the Vikings’ 7. The clock read: 1:00. On first down, Hoyer threw it out of the end zone with Greg Little covered. On second down, he threw it into the ground short of Cameron to stop the clock again. On third down, Hoyer eyed Cameron single covered by safety Harrison Smith, and he lofted it perfectly toward the right corner.
“It was a hot read,” said Cameron. “They brought the house and I just ran to the corner. Brian put the ball where no one else could get it, and it was a great throw.”
The defense then held as Ponder got off seven passes, including a semi-Hail Mary followed by a sack, the Browns’ sixth of the game.
As much as anyone in the Browns’ locker room, Hoyer knew how it important it was for them to show the fans that this season wasn’t over in September.
“I used to think that way, too,” Hoyer said of his days rooting vainly for the Browns. “Hopefully, this is a change. But I know how everyone feels. I think we just need to take this momentum and take this to our next game (against Cincinnati).”
That will be truly a joyous homecoming for Hoyer in FirstEnergy Stadium. A quarterback switch after this performance? Now that would be tanking.
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