Trent Richardson (33) carried 14 times for 47 yards and a TD against the Ravens. (Mitch Stringer/US PRESSWIRE)
The Cleveland Browns trailed 9-0 midway through the second quarter Thursday night when they took over possession on their own 6. Eleven plays and 94 yards later, the Browns were celebrating a touchdown as Trent Richardson took a pitch-out from the 1 and outraced the defense to the corner.
It was as solid a drive as we've seen in the NFL this season. Weeden completed five passes, including a 43-yarder down the sideline to Greg Little, and Richardson had a pair of bruising runs.
The Browns more than held their own in Baltimore, even had a chance to tie the game in the closing seconds, only to fall short, 23-16.
How many times have Cleveland fans seen this same script unfold, though: Their team battling hard and doing just enough to make a loss extra frustrating. If Weeden had not thrown a miserable pick-6 to Cary Williams late in the third quarter, if Little had caught an open touchdown pass in the fourth, maybe things would have turned out differently for the Browns.
Instead, the Browns are 0-4 and headed toward another disheartening season.
That's the challenge facing Weeden, Richardson and the rest of Cleveland's young nucleus (if Weeden, 28, can be considered "young"). Downtrodden teams talk all the time about changing a culture when losing has become the norm. The Browns are not there yet -- they may not even be that close -- but a game like Thursday can serve as a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel.
Richardson, for starters, had 104 total yards against Baltimore's tough D and showed the ability to make plays out of the backfield. And Weeden, the pick-6 and his final, awful Hail Mary pass aside, held his own.
On a 3rd-and-2 in the third quarter, Weeden ran a play-action fake, rolled to his right and squeezed in a pass to Richardson, who shook a defender and gained 15 yards. That's the hope personified. That this combination of players will be the ones to push Cleveland over the top.
The Ravens are where the Browns want to be. Thursday was far from Joe Flacco's finest hour, and Baltimore let Cleveland hang around far longer than it should have. But we learned long ago that this team simply knows how to win.
"Every year, we come back at the end of the year and we're always in the dance, we're always in the playoffs," Ray Lewis told the NFL Network after his team's win. "It's like I just told them in the locker room, being 3-1 in this business at the quarter mark is all that matters."
Baltimore's hero Thursday was Anquan Boldin, who entered the game with 10 catches on the season ... then put up nine for 131 yards in the second half. He had several big grabs in there -- three on the Ravens' touchdown drive to open the second half, and a 28-yarder with four minutes left to help Baltimore put Cleveland in a tough spot late.
"We knew it was going to be a hard-fought battle," Boldin said, "but that's what we expected."
They expected it because the Browns continue to find ways to put pressure on the opposition. Last season, Cleveland lost by six in Baltimore; two years ago, by seven.
As much as anything else, that underlines Cleveland's Sisyphean fate over the past two-plus decades. No matter what this franchise has tried, it has not been able to get over the top, especially in a division that features Baltimore, Pittsburgh and an emerging Cincinnati squad.
The holes in this roster are obvious, too. Weeden threw 27 incompletions on his 52 passes Thursday, but a handful of those were the result of drops, and several more came because the Browns' wide receivers could not get open.
Richardson? He looks like the real deal -- so much so that Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark tweeted during the game: "Trent Richardson is going to really become a problem!"
And Weeden has a chance to be a good quarterback in this league, as evidenced by some of the impressive plays he made in Baltimore.
But where will the help come from? Jordan Norwood let a couple of passes slip through his fingers. Little did the same, with the worst example being that fourth-quarter deep ball from Weeden that had touchdown written all over it. The Browns' offensive line gave up just one sack, but Weeden found himself staring at Baltimore defenders all night long, including on the game's final play, when his jersey was tugged on just enough to cause him to airmail one out of the end zone.
Long story short: The rebuilding process may finally, mercifully, be on the right track in Cleveland. Only the first few bricks have been laid in the foundation, however.