By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
Updated at 12:53 a.m.
The prime-time showcase of two teams seeking respect became a brutal battle of attrition.
The Browns lost quarterback Brian Hoyer early in the game to a serious injury to his right knee. Running back Chris Ogbonnaya suffered a concussion and defensive end Desmond Bryant was taken by ambulance to Cleveland Clinic after experiencing shortness of breath.
The Buffalo Bills lost quarterback EJ Manuel in the third quarter to an injury to his right knee.
Scraping back from a terribly deflating start, the Browns prevailed, 37-24, completing a rally from an early 10-0 deficit on a 44-yard interception return for a touchdown by T.J. Ward with 1:44 to go.
The pick 6 was intended for receiver Robert Woods and thrown by Jeff Tuel, an undrafted rookie who played most of the second half.
The Browns also received a franchise-record 179 yards in punt returns by Travis Benjamin, a yeoman’s performance by running back Willis McGahee and a winning relief effort by Brandon Weeden.
The triumph improved the Browns’ record to 3-2 – their first time over .500 in 33 games – and gave them sole possession of first place in the AFC North.
But the victory had the feel of a Pyrrhic one.
Hoyer, the hometown boy who rescued another season from going down the tubes with two wins in two starts, was knocked out of the game with a knee injury 3 minutes, 27 seconds into the game.
Hoyer was running for a first down toward the right sideline and had lowered his head to slide down when Buffalo linebacker Kiko Alonso nailed his helmet into Hoyer’s left ear hole. That wasn’t all.
As Hoyer crashed to the ground Alonso fell on him and Hoyer’s right knee hyperextended at an ugly angle. He was helped off the field and tended to on the sideline. In a matter of minutes, Hoyer walked slowly to the locker room surrounded by medical personnel. He did not return.
Coach Rob Chudzinski said Hoyer would undergo an MRI on Friday to determine the extent of the injury.
“It’s tough,” said left tackle Joe Thomas. “But they don’t end the game when your quarterback goes down. Brandon did a nice job stepping in.”
It took a while for Weeden to find the rhythm he lost in two weeks out. He got in only one sporadic practice day of throwing to receivers in the short work week. But he put together one long TD drive in the first half and one snappy one in the second half, on which he connected with Greg Little for 47 yards and then Josh Gordon for 37 yards and the touchdown.
A wild third period saw the Bills score two touchdowns – one on a 54-yard run by C.J. Spiller – despite losing Manuel. The injury occurred when safety Tashaun Gipson laid a shoulder into his right knee while Manuel ran for a first down.
“I’m not a dirty player. I didn’t try to hurt him,” Gipson said. “Our quarterback took a shot. Their quarterback took a shot. It’s football.”
Weeden completed 13 of 24 passes for 197 yards after getting in only a day’s worth of practice reps with the backups in the short work week. It was his first appearance since he sprained his right thumb in Game 2.
“We have just as much trust in Weeden as Hoyer,” said Gordon. “We don’t favor one over the other.”
You could feel the air sucked right out of FirstEnergy Stadium when Hoyer went down – and then out.
“It was definitely upsetting,” said cornerback Joe Haden. “It was a blow. He was doing so good for us. But we knew Weeden was ready to play.”
The Browns’ defense seemed deflated. The Bills moved downfield for a 52-yard field goal by Dan Carpenter for an early 10-0 lead.
It’s unimaginable for a game to start more horribly for the Browns.
Greg Little accepted the opening kickoff six yards deep in the end zone and returned it to the 8-yard line. On the second play, Hoyer hit Gordon in the hands breaking inside the hash marks. Gordon dropped the ball. It would have been a 90-yard TD.
“I couldn’t deal with that if the team would have lost because of me,” Gordon said.
After another play, the Browns’ punt was returned 25 yards by Buffalo’s Jim Leonhard. On second down, Haden was flagged for interference in the end zone on a gadget pass from receiver T.J. Graham to receiver Stevie Johnson. Fred Jackson carried it over from the 1 for the touchdown.
Weeden was slow getting into the flow early on. The crowd booed him a few times.
“I was a little rusty coming out of the chute,” he said.
Somehow, though, the Browns went to the locker with a halftime lead for the fifth game in a row. They led, 17-10, after Travis Benjamin re-ignited the proceedings with two electrifying punt returns.
The first was 57 yards and set up a short field goal. Benjamin suffered the ignominy of getting knocked out of bounds by punter Shawn Powell. But on the second one, Benjamin put a move on Powell at the end and accelerated past another would-be tackler for a 79-yard touchdown.
“Yeah, the first time I let him push me out of bounds, so I came to the sidelines thinking I can’t let the punter tackle me,” Benjamin said. “The second time when I came to him I just cut back inside and I knew he missed the tackle.”
Before the TD return, Weeden found a little rhythm and put together an arduous 14-play, 74-yard march. Seven of the plays were run after the Browns reached the Bills’ 6. It was pretty ugly with the Browns confused with subsitutions and Weeden unable to take command of the situation. But Willis McGahee finally punched it in on his third try from the 1.
McGahee carried 14 times in the first half because Chris Ogbonnaya was knocked out of the game with an apparent concussion. McGahee, 31, finished with 72 yards on 26 carries.
Later in the second half, Browns defensive end Desmond Bryant left the game after complaining of shortness of breath. Bryant was taken by ambulance to Cleveland Clinic for observation.
Despite the casualties, the Browns were ecstatic about extending their winning streak.
“We’re a hungry, relentless football team,” Weeden said. “To win one like this is big for this locker room.”
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to email@example.comFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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