CLEVELAND — At long last, after decades of study and research, an existential question can be answered:
Can a team punt nine times in a row and still win?
More to the point, can a team score in the first quarter, punt nine times the rest of the game and win?
The answer, of course, is yes.
Because the Browns did just that Sunday in beating San Diego 7-6 on a blustery, rainy day in Browns Stadium. The Chargers looked and played like they wanted no part of the weather. The Browns got enough scoring in the first quarter, then held the Chargers off the rest of the way.
If beauty is only skin deep, the beauty of this win didn’t get very deep.
But that mattered not to the Browns, who will take any win any way they can get it.
And they showed that on Twitter:
Just win baby. Boy my teammates are some fighters. We were not going to lose that one! #Browns
And the reason the Browns won came down to three factors: Trent Richardson, Robert Meachem and the Browns defense — or the Chargers offense, depending on your point of view.
Richardson played a full game after three good days of practice and questions about his rib injury. And he played well, gaining a season-best 122 yards on 24 carries.
“There was nothing wrong with his ribs,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “I just had to keep answering the questions.”
Richardson averaged 5.1 yards per carry on a defense that had been giving up 3.5 yards per carry, best in the league.
“He had a totally different mindset this week than he did last week,” quarterback Brandon Weeden said. “I think he felt comfortable. He had a great week of practice. I don’t know if he’s 100 percent, but he played like it.”
Included was a 26-yard touchdown run that ended the Browns first possession. That was good enough to win a game because neither team could get a thing done in the wind and rain. After the touchdown, the Browns punted nine times and took a knee to end the game.
At some point, the mantra became don’t make a mistake and play defense, and that’s what the Browns did.
“You could have brought in the best offense ever to play the game and they wouldn’t score out there today,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said.
Ah, but the Chargers could have scored had Meachem hung on to a third-quarter pass when he was wide open down the middle of the field. That throw had touchdown written all over it, but Meachem dropped the ball — and San Diego’s best hope.
This past offseason, Meachem left New Orleans and signed a four-year, $25.9 million contract with the Chargers, with $14 million guaranteed.
That’s a tidy $14 million and one very untidy dropped pass on Sunday.
“I feel like you make that play, game over,” Meachem said, sounding much like some Browns receivers have this season.
“I took my eyes off it,” Meachem said. “I thought about scoring first before I caught the ball. Big play in the game. Big-time players make big-time plays, and that’s a play you have to make in a game like this. It could have been a changer.”
“When you get an opportunity to make a big play, you have to do it,” coach Norv Turner said.
The Browns defense did the rest, finishing a game for the first time this season without giving up a touchdown. The defense stopped San Diego on fourth-and-1 on the Chargers’ first possession at Cleveland’s 30, then stopped San Diego on downs at the Cleveland 44 on the Chargers’ last. Between, San Diego only threatened the end zone on the pass to Meachem, and got two field goals.
The weather kept the offenses down — even new owner Jimmy Haslam looked uncomfortable in the whipping winds sitting outside his suite. The Browns had 250 total yards, 117 passing. The Chargers had 265, 148 passing. One touchdown was scored, thanks to one strong first-quarter run.
“Our defense won us that football game,” said Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden.
As did San Diego, which seemed to want no part of the weather or the day.
For the Chargers it’s another bad loss, their third in a row.
For the Browns …
“Every win is like a Super Bowl,” Josh Cribbs said. “Joe Haden said it. That’s the one thing about Cleveland. We don’t take wins for granted.”