Reporting Daryl Ruiter
CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – Don’t look now but the Cleveland Browns are finally above .500 – and in first place in the AFC North.
And they won a game that they’d typically lose to do it.
The Browns used Brandon Weeden’s arm, Travis Benjamin’s electrifying punt returns and a pick-6 late from safety T.J. Ward to beat the Buffalo Bills 37-24 Thursday night at FirstEnergy Stadium and in front of a national TV audience.
It’s the Browns’ third straight win following an 0-2 start to the season and they did it in semi-dramatic fashion as both teams lost their starting quarterbacks to knee injuries.
“Another example of how these guys never quit,” head coach Rob Chudzinski said. “We never flinched in this game. Things went wrong, things not going good early. It was a back and forth game. (It was) just a real good effort and real good team effort.”
Weeden, who relieved starter Brian Hoyer in the first quarter, completed 13 of 24 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown as the Browns bounced back from deficits of 10-0 and 24-17.
“Whether I was the starter, eyes are still on you to see how you respond, to see how you react,” Weeden said. “I was upbeat the entire time and never let it bother me. Inside, it just kind of lit a fire.”
But Thursday night’s game couldn’t have started much worse for the Browns.
Greg Little returned the first 2 kickoffs of the night and got to the 10 once.
Receiver Josh Gordon dropped what appeared to be a sure 90-yard touchdown catch and run on the Browns opening possession. They punted.
Bills running back Fred Jackson scored on a 1-yard touchdown run right after Joe Haden was flagged for pass interference defending Stevie Johnson in the end zone to give Buffalo a 7-0 lead.
Then Hoyer departed with 11:33 to play in the first quarter after sustaining a right knee injury on an 11-yard scramble. Chudzinski told the NFL Network that the team fears the worst and that Hoyer will undergo an MRI Friday.
“He was playing great, man,” Weeden said. “You hate to see it because he’s a teammate and a friend. I tried to be as positive with him as I could.”
Dan Carpenter’s 52-yard field goal extended Buffalo’s lead to 10-0 with 5:51 to play in the opening quarter.
Then Benjamin lit a fuse and the Browns scored 17 unanswered points before the half.
Benjamin rolled off a 57-yard punt return to the Bills 31. It led to a Billy Cundiff 33-yard field goal to get the Browns on the board with 14:24 to play in the second quarter and make it a 10-3 game.
“He’s a real weapon back there and he showed it tonight,” Chudzinski said of Benjamin. “It was a huge, huge play and a great run. He broke multiple tackles and obviously you saw his speed. He’s an electrifying player and he did that tonight.”
Willis McGahee tied the game at 10 with a 1-yard touchdown with 3:52 left in the half to cap a 14-play, 74-yard drive and tie the game at 10.
After the defense forced another Bills punt, Benjamin bobbed, weaved and spun 79 yards for a touchdown to put Cleveland on top 17-10 with 2:20 left in the half.
“It was a wild punt return for us,” Benjamin said. “We knew that he just wanted to kick the ball out of bounds and away from me. I knew once I caught the ball that I had great special teams blocks and they were going to get me a crease.
“I know my speed and my ability and once I made it to the edge I felt I could make it.”
Cleveland has led all 5 games this season at the half.
C.J. Spiller started the second half with a bang for Buffalo by ripping off a 54-yard TD run to tie the game at 17 just 1:43 into the second half.
Bills quarterback E.J. Manuel suffered a right knee injury with 8:24 to play in the third quarter after Browns safety Tashaun Gipson hit him in the knees following a 14-yard scramble.
After Manuel left, backup Jeff Tuel took over and Jackson ran in again from 1-yard out to put Buffalo back on top 24-17 with 6:32 to play in the third.
The Browns answered quickly. Weeden hit Greg little for 47 yards, then Josh Gordon for a 37-yard touchdown with 5:35 left in the third to tie it at 24. Gordon bobbled the ball in the end zone but hung on and got both feet in for the score.
“Aaron Williams, great DB, got his hand on the ball a little bit to knock it up,” Gordon said. “He stayed focused on it and tried to reel it in. I know I had to make a play today and luckily that was the one. “
Cundiff put the Browns back in front 27-24 with a 24-yard field goal with 12:31 to play in the 4th. He added a 44 yarder with 2:18 left extending to a 30-24 lead.
Ward sealed the team’s third straight win by picking Tuel off and returning it 44 yards for a touchdown with 1:44 left in the game and the celebration began.
“I just read his eyes and got a good break on it,” Ward said. “This win was completely a team win.”
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