CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Browns finally ended their losing streak. Eleven painful games in a row — until Sunday.
“I think,” said Josh Cribbs after the Browns beat the Bengals 34-24, “this is the start of something good.”
Such are the vibes that come from winning, especially when a win comes after five losses in a row to start the season and after matching a team high with 11 in a row overall.
“The joy of winning relieves … whatever,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “It’s what we’re all searching for.”
The relief felt like a pressure valve being released. Browns players tried to say they didn’t think about the 11-game losing streak, but it would be impossible not to.
“It was good for our psyche, good for our morale,” quarterback Brandon Weeden said.
“Losing is the worst,” cornerback Joe Haden said.
“We can breathe,” Cribbs said.
Whether the Browns follow it remains to be seen, but they showed some good signs Sunday, and many were provided by some of their most maligned players.
— The defense, which gave up 500 yards a week ago, rebounded and stymied the Bengals to keep the game close while the offense was struggling. And when a big play was needed late, Emmanuel Stephens forced Andy Dalton to fumble and rookie Billy Winn recovered.
— Receiver Josh Gordon had his most productive game as a pro, catching three passes for 99 yards — including a 71-yard touchdown.
— Running back Montario Hardesty came out of the abyss to replace an injured Trent Richardson (ribs) and run for 56 important yards on 15 carries, with a touchdown.
— Cornerback Joe Haden returned from a very damaging four-game suspension to intercept a pass.
— Cribbs provided the spark with a 60-yard punt return.
— Weeden turned around a stretch when the Browns had seven consecutive three-and-outs to lead the offense to two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
— And veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown intercepted a Dalton pass in the fourth quarter and returned it for a touchdown, which gave the Browns a 34-17 lead.
The Bengals made folks nervous with a long touchdown to A.J. Green and a drive to the nine-yard line with just less than three minutes left. Another Bengals touchdown would have made the Browns’ sideline very tight, but Stephens rushed off the edge, forced the turnover and Winn rambled 35 yards after scooping it up.
“That’s the longest I’ve run with the ball in my life,” Winn said.
What does it mean?
It means the Browns are 1-5 and can go 2-5 next Sunday in Indianapolis.
It means that Shurmur finally can provide validation for the work being done.
And it means that the mistakes are somehow easier to absorb. Because there were plenty, especially in one gruesome stretch of play from the time the Browns scored their first touchdown with 14:51 to play in the first half through the point when the Browns took over at their 34 with 5:13 left in the third quarter.
In that stretch of 20:04 the Browns had the ball seven times, got zero first downs and gained a grand total of 20 yards.
Seven possessions without a first down.
Somehow in that stretch the Browns cut a 14-7 deficit to 14-13, thanks to Cribbs’ return and Haden’s interception.
But to their credit they did not quit or get frustrated. They kept plugging, and despite numerous injuries they prevailed. Jimmy Haslam will not take over a winless team on Tuesday, and the Browns have their first win in the division in 13 tries, and their first win in 12 games.
Cribbs talked with exuberance, saying “I think we’re on to something.” His teammates were a little more reserved, saying there is no release of pressure, just a long-awaited win.
“You can be a hero one week, you can be a zero the next,” Brown said.
But the feeling, the elation, is what guys play and work for, Shurmur said.
In the end zone, someone hung a sign that read: “11-5 starts today.”