CLEVELAND – A Cleveland Browns win Sunday erased a weeklong cloud that hung over a still young season and bought a week of smiles and hope as the utterly hopeless Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit Cleveland next Sunday.
And that’s all it did.
Wins have been tough to come by on Fall Sundays in Cleveland for a long time, and in an ever-changing, bottom-line business, they all certainly count. With proper perspective, they all can be celebrated.
The Browns are 4-3 for the first time since 2007 and might be building something, but they’re a long way from having anything built.
They patched together a win over the Oakland Raiders Sunday because the Raiders insisted they take it. The final score was 23-13 and Brian Hoyer’s final stat line showed 275 passing yards and, well, numbers are numbers. The Browns were the better team Sunday, and the Browns defense turned in one of its best efforts of the season, and those things are positives.
"We made plays when we needed to," Browns coach Mike Pettine said. "When things are sluggish, you find a way."
The Browns still have an awful lot of things to clean up. They’re still in fourth place in the rugged AFC North, too, and though they’re just a half-game out of first, if they don’t play a lot better than they’ve played lately, they’ll stay in the basement.
Rough league, this NFL. Tough grading. Slim margins.
A really lucky bounce on a Darren McFadden fumble in the third quarter was the biggest play of Sunday’s game. Down 9-6, the Raiders were driving and McFadden had reached the Browns 20 when he was hit by Donte Whitner. The ball didn’t just come loose; it popped into the air and into the hands of a waiting Joe Haden, who returned it almost to midfield.
Hoyer hit his biggest pass of the day on the next play after Andrew Hawkins got open on a double move. Two more passes, the second back to a wide-open Hawkins, gave the Browns a touchdown and essentially put it away. The Browns got some other bounces Sunday, too, but none bigger than the one that ended up in Haden’s hands.
Big hit at a big time by Whitner? Sure. Big game at a big time for Haden (finally)? Sure. Big answer and clincher for a previously stagnant offense? Sure.
It was the first Browns touchdown since the fourth quarter on Oct. 12, covering 118 minutes and 30 seconds of game time. The Browns would go on to win despite recording just one first down by rush, converting 2-of-12 third down chances, getting outgained by 81 yards and outrushed by 32 by the league’s worst rushing team.
That aforementioned Oct. 12 domination of the Steelers was a joyous occassion, and the way the Steelers have played since gives that win more weight. Not every win is supposed to come with its own parade, so maybe that’s progress, too. It just kind of felt like the Browns weren’t really much better than the Raiders for most of Sunday, that the offense playing its third center in three weeks lost Jordan Cameron to a first-half concussion and for the second straight week didn’t cash in too many times, that the Browns are sitting on a chance at a run — even after that stinker in Jacksonville — but are kind of spinning their wheels.
Twenty minutes into Sunday’s game, the Browns had 9 points and 6 rushing yards.
For the 25 minutes that followed that, the Raiders were assertive and aggressive any team that knew even the slightest about winning would have taken charge.
Even after it was basically over, with the Browns up 10 points and the Raiders inside their own 10 in the final 3:30, the Raiders offered up another gift when impressive rookie quarterback Derek Carr ran into a teammate while moving around the pocket. Carr fumbled, Barkevious Mingo recovered inside the Raiders 10, and two plays later Ben Tate ran for 5 yards and a Browns touchdown.
The Raiders are just awful, as bad as their 0-7 record indicates.
"To finally capitalize on something the defense did, it felt good," Hoyer said of the fourth quarter.
If the offense is only going to be good for one quarter, the fourth is probably the one to choose. The Browns defense kept the Raiders out of the end zone until the final 10 seconds, and Haden and Paul Kruger were especially active, and those are good things. Pettine said the Browns, as a defense, may be "finding our identity."
That’s the best thing the Browns can take away from Sunday. And that the 1-6 Buccaneers are up next.
Hoyer had some really good moments over the first five games of the season. Sunday, Pettine said Hoyer was "good enough to win," and that’s what counts. There were a couple explosive plays early and enough of them late, but the Browns have to get the offensive line and running game back on track. They have to score touchdowns when they knock on the door. Hoyer knows his best asset is his brain and said after the game he was telling teammates in the closing minutes that they’ll face a different kind of defensive scheme in next week’s game.
It’s great to be able to both look and think ahead. The Browns are still very much in the "take the wins when you can get them" stage.
Savor every one of ’em.
Right now, the Browns are trying to fight for standing and legitimacy in what may be the NFL’s best division — the records say it is — and the only way to do that is to win. The record says the Browns are a winning team, but their play suggests they’re still closer to the likes of the Raiders, Jaguars, Titans and Bucs.
In the moment, the Browns can and should be glad to be on the right side of .500. Right now, too, they owe the schedule makers a nice fruit basket.
In the big picture, they have a long, long way to go.