The Cleveland Browns find themselves in first place. Really.
By ZAC JACKSON FS Ohio
CLEVELAND -- We interrupt this improbable celebration of the first-place
Cleveland Browns for a quick moment of reflection.
This particular Browns team has won three straight games but in the big picture has won a whole bunch of nothing yet. So many previous Browns teams not only went ahead and won a whole bunch of nothing, but did it without the benefit of anything resembling good luck.
Reflection. Plenty of things have happened in this stadium that defied logic. Plenty of overmatched, pressed-into-duty quarterbacks have thrown crippling interceptions. Plenty of raucous crowds have gone home depressed, second-guessing everything from coaching decisions to crazy bounces to dropped passes and hope lost.
Since when does all this stuff happen for the Browns, to the benefit of the Browns?
Since Thursday night.
The best Thursday Night Football game of the young season saw the Browns beat the Bills, 37-24, by scoring the final 20 points. They scored on a punt return and on an interception return and even on their first rushing touchdown of the season. They lost their starting quarterback to a potentially serious knee injury early in the game, got called for two pass interference penalties in the end zone, had a key defensive starter taken to the hospital and gave up a 54-yard touchdown run.
And they won, in part because the Bills also lost their quarterback to injury, also got penalized in the end zone, insisted on punting to
Travis Benjamin and couldn't take advantage of that Browns starting quarterback being replaced by a guy who hadn't played in two weeks because of a thumb injury, hadn't really practiced much at all and almost got booed out of his own stadium when he came in and the offense stalled like it did too many times in the Browns first two games.
Those games now seem like they were decades ago. That was so long ago, that was the Trent Richardson Era.
Maybe it really is a new day for the Browns, who are flawed, beat-up, far from perfect and in first place -- through Sunday afternoon, anyway -- at 3-2.
The old quarterback -- pun not intended -- Brandon Weeden came in and overcame getting sacked five times and looking lost on at least five other plays to throw for 197 yards and a touchdown. Willis McGahee, the oldest player on the roster, trudged his way to 26 carries, 72 yards and that touchdown.
Benjamin, who said before the season that he's one of the five fastest players in the NFL, ran like it, breaking a 20-year old franchise record with 179 punt return yards. He got 79 yards on one punt return, zigging and zagging and breaking tackles as he crossed the field and gave the Browns a 17-10 lead late in the first half after they'd trailed 10-0 to start and lost Brian Hoyer, who left on crutches and awaits an MRI on his right knee but becomes the first Browns quarterback to win his first three starts since the team played in the AAFC.
Through two quarterback changes, one big trade, five solid efforts by a downright nasty (and still growing) defense, this Browns team has officially re-entered the real NFL, blueprints be damned.
Three straight wins will do that.
There's no luck in losing Hoyer, the local kid who had energized a stagnant offense. But the Browns made their own luck through not turning the ball over, generating just enough of a run game and with the defense setting up Benjamin. It was good enough team football to overcome that rough start.
About the boos, Weeden said, "You have to control what you can control." With 5:35 left in the third quarter, Weeden threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to
Josh Gordon to tie the game and regain the momentum after the Bills had scored two quick touchdowns.
About the clincher, a 44-yard interception return by T.J. Ward with 1:44 to go, Bills backup quarterback Jeff Tuel said, "Just a misread on my part. I didn't see the safety flying down."
The Cleveland Browns haven't flown like this at least since 2007, when only two current players were on the team and the head coach was the offensive coordinator.
"Certainly a team win," that coach, Rob Chudzinski, said about this latest. "Another example that these guys never quit. They never flinched."
Three straight wins just hasn't happened much around these parts. It did late last year -- against the Charlie Batch-quarterbacked Steelers, Raiders and Chiefs -- for the first time since a 1-11 team won four straight to close the 2009 season. That was three head coaches, two owners and several team presidents ago.
It's been like that. It's been depressing, from quarterback changes to helmet tosses and to AFC North Divison rivals hoisting that Really Big Trophy while the Browns were perpetually finishing fourth and drafting somewhere between third and seventh. The only constant has been change; the only consistency was that the Browns would find some way to screw something up.
Thursday's was just one win, but it was the latest in a line. This Browns defense is the real deal. In Gordon and Benjamin -- and, for at least this one, in Weeden and Greg Little and McGahee -- the Browns are finding ways to create offense. Those boos (and worse) for Weeden ended with cheers.
"I have great guys around me," Weeden said.
Guys who, at least for the next couple days, are alone in first place.