June 25, 2016

Mostly sunny

Dulik commentary: Browns make a statement on big stage

The Browns and Buffalo Bills put on quite a show in the first primetime football game in Cleveland since Dec. 10, 2009.

There were seven touchdowns, myriad bone-crushing hits, a touching halftime ceremony and two key injuries on each team.

In the end, though, Travis Benjamin’s speed, T.J. Ward’s craftiness and Willis McGahee’s heart propelled the Browns to a 37-24 victory Thursday on NFL Network.

It was Cleveland’s third straight win — giving it sole possession of first place in the AFC North Division — and gave its long-suffering fans reason to celebrate well into the night.

“This is obviously an exciting win and a team win,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “This was another example of why these guys just don’t quit. I also thought the fans were awesome. They were loud and made a difference for us. It was just a great night.”

After three gutsy, clutch triumphs, there is no denying Chudzinski has his team on the right track — and playing with supreme confidence. For the first time since 2001, Cleveland is 3-2 after five weeks.

The Browns’ latest win was their best yet, coming after they lost starting quarterback Brian Hoyer to a knee injury and fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter.

Benjamin provided the first spark by running back a punt 79 yards for a touchdown just before halftime, erasing Eric Metcalf and Joshua Cribbs from the team record book along the way.

McGahee took over from there, pushing his 31-year-old body to the limit by carrying the ball 26 punishing times. Buffalo’s first-round choice in the 2003 NFL Draft finished with 72 yards and scored Cleveland’s initial rushing TD of the season.

After the Bills jumped back in front at 24-17 midway through the third, second-year wide receiver Josh Gordon hauled in a 37-yard score from Brandon Weeden.

McGahee kept grinding out the yards on the Browns’ next two drives, leading to a pair of Billy Cundiff field goals and setting the stage for Ward to deliver the dagger.

The fourth-year safety read the eyes of Bills backup Jeff Tuel as he dropped back, then jumped the route being run by wide receiver Robert Woods with just 1:44 left. Ward caught the football in stride at the 44-yard line and celebrated all the way to the end zone.

“This energy was unbelievable tonight,” Gordon said. “We just had to persevere and fight through it.”

While a national television audience no doubt appreciated the intensity and blue collar-style of play, it came at a price to both squads.

Brian Hoyer and Bills counterpart E.J. Manuel suffered potentially severe right knee injuries after scrambling out of the pocket for first downs.

Hoyer took a shot from Buffalo linebacker Kiko Alonso, while Manuel was forced off the field on a hit from Cleveland safety Tashaun Gipson.

Their statuses, though, are a subject for another day. This night was all about celebrating now.

“The fans definitely love us now, but I remember the bad times, too,” Browns cornerback Joe Haden said. “It’s not all sweet, so we just want to keep it going, keep winning. That’s making us go harder in practice because we want to keep this together. It’s a lot of fun.”

Contact Brian Dulik at brisports@hotmail.com.