CLEVELAND — The perfect start to Brian Hoyer’s Browns career was abruptly stopped Thursday night.
Cleveland’s winning streak continued.
Hoyer, the quarterback from North Olmsted and St. Ignatius, injured his right knee when he was hit after a scramble in the first quarter. He was taken for an MRI and it is feared he suffered torn ligaments.
Brandon Weeden replaced him after missing two weeks with a sprained right thumb, survived some sloppy play, got tons of help and the Browns persevered to beat Buffalo 37-24 at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The Browns have won three straight to improve to 3-2 for the first time since 2001. They lead the AFC North by a half-game.
Travis Benjamin’s two long punt returns led to 10 points in the second quarter to flip a 10-0 Buffalo lead into a 17-10 Cleveland advantage. He scored on a 79-yard touchdown and set a franchise record with 179 yards on punt returns.
Weeden, running back Willis McGahee and receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little turned a 24-17 third-quarter deficit into a 30-24 lead in the fourth quarter.
Safety T.J. Ward ended the suspense and started a full-blown celebration with a 44-yard interception return for a touchdown with 1:44 left.
The first prime-time game in Cleveland since 2009 — a celebration of Hall of Famer Jim Brown — ended with both starting quarterbacks in the locker room. Bills rookie EJ Manuel was hit on the knee by safety Tashaun Gipson after a scramble and couldn’t return.
Hoyer’s injury looked worse.
On Cleveland’s second drive, Hoyer broke a tackle and scrambled for 11 yards. He went into his slide along the Browns sideline, but Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso didn’t stop.
He hit Hoyer in the left side of the helmet with his helmet, and Hoyer’s legs were caught in awkward positions. The right knee appeared to hyperextend, while the left one was caught underneath him. No flag was thrown.
Hoyer was in obvious pain, couldn’t put weight on the leg, then was examined on a table behind the bench. He eventually walked slowly into the locker room.
Hoyer had provided an immeasurable spark after the Browns’ 0-2 start and the trade of Trent Richardson. He led a winning drive in Minnesota, then beat Cincinnati last week.
He became the first Browns quarterback to win his first three starts since the franchise joined the NFL in 1950.
Weeden started the first two games, missed two weeks with the injury and returned to practice Monday. He had never entered a game as a backup, but talked during the week about the necessity to stay ready — just in case he was needed.
He was needed, and did enough to extend the winning streak.
Weeden went 13-for-24 for 197 yards and a touchdown and was sacked five times. He made three long throws that led to 10 crucial points in the second half.
The Browns went ahead 27-24 on a 24-yard Billy Cundiff field goal with 12:31 left. The Browns had first down from the 1, but McGahee lost 5 yards on two carries and Weeden threw incomplete for tight end Jordan Cameron.
They got an insurance field goal with 2:19 left on a 44-yarder from Cundiff. The pivotal play on the drive was an 18-yard completion to Gordon on third-and-18 from the Cleveland 35-yard line.
Weeden’s big arm paid dividends earlier as the Browns tied the score at 24 in the third quarter following a pair of Bills touchdowns to start the second half.
Weeden hit Little on a post for 47 yards, the first big play by Little in weeks. After an incompletion and a face mask on left guard John Greco, Weeden spotted Gordon in single coverage down the left sideline. Gordon fought for the ball and made a juggling 37-yard catch in the back of the end zone with 5:35 left in the third quarter.
The game didn’t lack for action, drama or storylines, before or after halftime.
The momentum continued to take huge swings in the third quarter.
The Bills scored in three plays to start the second half, with running back C.J. Spiller going 54 yards off left tackle for the touchdown. Rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, who started his second straight game and was active once again, couldn’t get off the block of tight end Scott Chandler, and Spiller easily broke into the clear.
The Bills weren’t satisfied with a tie at 17, forcing a punt and going 54 yards for a touchdown on their next possession. The big play, in more ways than one, was a 14-yard scramble by Manuel.
He converted the third-and-8 from the Cleveland 27-yard line, but Gipson hit him in the knee with his helmet. Manuel jogged on the sideline and into the locker room, but wasn’t able to return to the huddle.
Rookie Jeff Tuel replaced him and finished the drive to the end zone. He was helped by a pass interference penalty on safety T.J. Ward in the end zone that moved the ball to the 1 and set up Jackson’s second score. Ward had the arm of Chandler while the pass was in the air.
Tuel’s luck ran out and he couldn’t match Weeden in the fourth quarter.
The Browns also lost defensive end Desmond Bryant, who left with shortness of breath and was taken to the Cleveland Clinic as a precaution. He was hospitalized in Tampa last year with an irregular heartbeat but played the next week.
The first half also contained plenty of big plays.
Benjamin put the Browns back in the game, and eventually in front, with a pair of long punt returns.
Benjamin’s 57-yard sprint near the end of the first quarter set up a 30-yard field goal by Cundiff. He beat the Bills to the corner, turned up the field and was finally bumped out of bounds by punter Nigel Bradham.
McGahee’s 1-yard touchdown run tied the game at 10 with 3:52 left in the first half. The Browns defense forced a three-and-out, and Benjamin went to work again. He ran, bobbed and weaved for 79 yards, a touchdown and a 17-10 lead.
Benjamin caught the ball on the right side, headed left, found a seam and split it. He reached the left sideline, cut inside to avoid another push by Powell, spun out of a tackle by linebacker Nigel Bradham and cruised into the end zone.
The Bills got off to a great start, scoring a touchdown 104 seconds in and adding a 52-yard Dan Carpenter field goal seven minutes later.
Even without the injury to Hoyer, the game couldn’t have started much worse for the Browns.
Little caught the opening kickoff 6 yards deep in the end zone and was tackled at the 8-yard line. On the second snap, receiver Josh Gordon dropped a skinny post that would’ve been a long gainer.
The Browns were forced to punt, and Jim Leonhard returned it 25 yards to the Cleveland 32-yard line. The Bills used some trickery to set up Fred Jackson’s 1-yard touchdown run.
Manuel gave the ball to receiver T.J. Graham on an end-around, and Graham pulled up and threw to receiver Stevie Johnson in the end zone. The ball was underthrown, and cornerback Joe Haden was called for pass interference after grabbing him in the end zone.
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