Browns hold off Buccaneers 22-17 to improve to 5-3
CLEVELAND (AP) Before he earned Pro Bowl trips, adulation and an enormous multimillion-dollar contract, Joe Thomas was just a talented rookie left tackle on a winning team.
The Browns were 5-3 at the midway point in 2007, and Thomas figured it would be like that every season.
It ain't so, Joe.
Seven years, several coaching changes and a carousel of starting quarterbacks later, Cleveland is 5-3 again.
''It feels pretty good,'' Thomas said after a 22-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. ''It's been a long time. I like where we are.''
The Browns, beaten down for so long, are legit.
Brian Hoyer threw a 34-yard TD pass to wide receiver Taylor Gabriel with 8:59 remaining, helping Cleveland complete a favorable three-game stretch with their fourth win in five games. The Browns are in the mix, and with a big game ahead on Thursday night in Cincinnati, they can make something special of this season.
Cleveland was trailing 17-16 when Hoyer held on to the ball a little longer and completed his second TD pass, this one to Gabriel, an emerging undrafted free agent who has been making big plays all year.
''It wasn't always pretty with the way our offense was playing,'' said Hoyer, who ignored some boos and improved to 8-3 as Cleveland's starter. ''But we're 5-3 and we've just got to continue to improve.''
Hoyer finished 21 of 34 for a season-high 300 yards, two TDs and two interceptions.
The Browns went 2-1 the past three weeks against Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay, who entered a combined 2-19. Cleveland may have struggled against teams it should have handled with ease, but past Browns teams would have likely lost these types of games.
''Things have changed quite a bit,'' Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden said. ''To be 5-3 is just amazing. Five games is the most I've won since I've been here.''
Tampa Bay's Mike Glennon threw a pair of 24-yard TDs to rookie Mike Evans for the Buccaneers (1-7), who have lost four in a row and five this season by six points or less.
''We've got to find a way to win a game now is what we have to do,'' said first-year coach Lovie Smith. ''We're running out of time.''
Billy Cundiff kicked three field goals for the improved Browns, who have the league's attention under first-year coach Mike Pettine.
''We'll celebrate a little bit tonight, but emphasis on a little,'' Pettine said. ''We're in a good spot and our guys are confident, but this is one here where we know we have to be all in this week.''
Tampa Bay had a chance in the final two minutes, but couldn't convert on a fourth-and-11 with 1:45 left. The Bucs appeared to pick up a first down on the previous play, but Evans was called for pass interference.
Hoyer's TD pass to Gabriel was set up by Cleveland linebacker Craig Robertson, who broke through and deflected a Tampa Bay punt to give the Browns the ball at the Bucs 35.
Two plays later, Hoyer dropped back and was about to be hit by Tampa Bay's Lavonte David on a blitz. But rookie running back Terrance West alertly stepped up and got a piece of the Buccaneers linebacker, giving Hoyer enough time to loft his scoring pass to Gabriel and giving the Browns a 22-17 lead.
''I had three good blocks today,'' West said. ''That was the best one, though.''
Glennon went 17 of 33 for 260 yards, and fell to 1-4 while filling in for injured starter Josh McCown.
His second 24-yard scoring pass to Evans put the Bucs ahead 17-16.
Glennon floated a pass to the back shoulder of Evans, who made a twisting catch and was able to get both feet in for the score. As he did after his first score, Evans looked at Cleveland's sideline and rubbed his fingers together in the ''money-making'' gesture his former college teammate, Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel, made famous at Texas A&M.
''It just came to my mind,'' Evans said of his celebration. ''That's one of my best buds. I just wanted to give him a hard time.''
A costly penalty by Tampa Bay star defensive end Gerald McCoy helped the Browns take a 16-10 lead. The Browns were lining up for a go-ahead field goal when McCoy, who signed a six-year, $95.2 million in October, was whistled for a neutral-zone infraction. Cleveland converted on fourth-and-1 and two plays later, Hoyer hit a wide-open West.
NOTES: Browns S Tashaun Gipson got his sixth interception. ... Browns DE Billy Winn set up Cleveland's first score by blocking a 31-yard field-goal attempt by Tampa Bay's Patrick Murray. ... The Buccaneers led at halftime for the first time this season. ... Hoyer's 300 yards are his most since his first start last season at Minnesota (321).
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