When the Cleveland Browns traded running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts on Sept. 18, there were many who assumed that the team was packing it in for the season. Now, however, the Browns own sole possession of first place in their division in Week 5 for the first time since 2001, and it happened in a 37-24 win over the Buffalo Bills that saw both starting quarterbacks leave the game with knee injuries. The Browns lost Brian Hoyer on the second series of the game, when Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso tackled him on a run to the sideline. And Bills first-round pick EJ Manuel left the field after he was hit by Cleveland defensive back Tashaun Gipson. Both players suffered knee injuries, but the story turned out much better for the Browns and backup Brandon Weeden than it did for Buffalo and rookie reserve Jeff Tuel.
"I saw him working out on the sidelines and thought we could get him back," Bills head coach Doug Marrone said of Manuel. "And then [the medical staff] shut him down."
The Browns actually trailed 24-17 when running back Fred Jackson scored on a one-yard run with 6:41 left in the third quarter, but Weeden dropped the hammer on two big throws on the following drive -- a 47-yarder to Greg Little and a 37-yarder to Josh Gordon -- and that set Cleveland on a path to score 20 unanswered points. It now leads the AFC North with a 3-2 record.
"The energy in here was unreal," Gordon told the NFL Network's Alex Flanagan about the environment at Cleveland's FirstEnergy Stadium. "The fans were behind us, and we believed in each other from the beginning. We didn't care about this history of it. It's a new team and a new year, and things are looking up for us. We wanted to prove to everybody what we could do.
"We've just got to push through and persevere through adversity. We've been the team that does that for the longest -- since last year. Coming from behind and people doubting us. Coach fired us up, and everybody was ready."
Weeden, who lost his starting job to Hoyer while he was recovering from a sprained thumb, started raw and played inconsistently in the first half. But offensive coordinator Norv Turner called plays that played to Weeden's strengths in the second half -- Weeden has a great arm, but he's historically had problems when asked to make more than one read. So, the Browns' coaching staff set routes that had their receivers winning one-on-one battles downfield, and that was the key.
"Brandon had to knock the dust off from the injury, but he was ready and willing," Gordon said. "I told him to think a bit less -- just go out there and wing it and have fun. Worse comes to worst, just put it on our shoulders, and I couldn't ask for a better performance from him.
Weeden finished the game with 13 completions in 24 attempts for 197 yards and a touchdown after completing six of 12 passes for 68 yards in the first half. He did not throw an interception, though he took five sacks.
"You've got to control what you can control, and I'm going to stick my neck on the line for this football team," Weeden said. "I prepared like I was the starter; that's the only way I know to go about it. It was tough -- [I had] very few reps [through the week] -- actually, zero reps over the last two weeks. I was a little rusty to start, but I've got great guys around me."
It was a victory that meant a lot to several Browns players who had something to prove. Weeden was booed by the home crowd through that rusty first half, Little has been wildly inconsistent all season -- and frankly, his whole career -- and Gordon was suspended for the first two games of the 2013 season after he violated the league's substance-abuse policy. But this is a team that has won three straight since the Richardson trade, and the players believe that more great things can happen for them.
"It's exciting," Weeden said. "Obviously, a great show tonight. There's a lot of enthusiasm, national television, and we got to show what Cleveland Browns football is all about. We're a hungry football team, and this took all three phases.
"You've got to take the good things and build on those. We've got a lot of football left, but this is a hungry team."
It did indeed take all three phases. Special teams star Travis Benjamin set a franchise record with 179 punt return yards on seven returns, eclipsing the mark set by Eric Metcalf in 1993. And Cleveland's defense was the real star of this game. The front seven constantly harassed Buffalo's quarterbacks, and cornerbacks Joe Haden and Buster Skrine made life difficult for the Bills' receivers. Outside of C.J. Spiller's 54-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, the Bills had few big plays to take home with them. It didn't help when receiver Stevie Johnson left the game in the first half with a back injury. He did not return.
Tuel, who completed eight of 20 passes for 80 yards and one interception in Manuel's stead , threw a pick-six to safety T.J. Ward with 1:44 left in the game. Ward read a pass Tuel threw in the general direction of receiver Robert Woods, but the rookie QB telegraphed it all the way. Manuel, who completed 11 of 20 passes for 129 yards, was diagnosed with a sprained knee, though the team will await a more certain diagnosis. Alex Marvez of FOX Sports reports that Hoyer can't put any weight on the injured leg, and some in the Browns' organization believe the injury could be season-ending.