Replaced by Brandon Weeden, who missed the last two weeks with a sprained thumb and who has only practiced once in a limited capacity since the injury, it looked like the Browns' hopes of getting above .500 at 3-2 were quickly dashed.
Instead, Rob Chudzinski and the Browns emerged with a 37-24 victory, aided by strong defensive and special teams performances by Cleveland, unfortunate injuries to Buffalo, and well-timed plays by Weeden, who effectively overcame some early-game rust and five sacks.
The win proved that the Browns can indeed win games regardless of who is under center.
Hoyer did not start strongly, completing two of four passes for 25 yards prior to his injury on an 11-yard scramble. In relief, Weeden completed 13 of his 24 pass attempts for 197 yards and a touchdown and, most importantly, no interceptions. He was just 2-of-6 for 22 yards and two sacks in the first quarter, which seemed to spell doom, but the team as a whole managed to overcome.
Though he looked far slower in his release than Hoyer, and continued his aggravating habit of staring down his first read and not going through his progressions, Weeden was not a liability. He wasn't an asset either, but Cleveland did not have to live or die by their quarterback.
The Browns were helped immensely by their defense. Though they gave up 343 total yards, including 155 rushing, they were able to make key stops late in the game to prevent any possible comeback threat. They sacked quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Jeff Tuel—who came in as an injury replacement—four times, had four tackles for loss, eight pass deflections and 12 quarterback hits.
Only Robert Woods exceeded 50 yards receiving for the Bills, at 64. But even he only caught five of the 13 passes thrown his way, owing to solid coverage, first by Buster Skrine and, later (after Stevie Johnson left the game with a back injury) Joe Haden.
The defense ultimately sealed the win for the Browns, with safety T.J. Ward notching a pick-six of Tuel at the 1:44 mark of the fourth to give us the final 37-24 scoreline.
Special teams was also a strong point for the Browns. Wideout Travis Benjamin had 179 punt return yards on the night, which included a 79-yard TD near the end of the first half to give the home team its first lead of the game, 17-10. His punt return yardage set a new Browns record, breaking the previous record held by Eric Metcalf with 166.
Unlike Browns squads of years past, the team was barely disrupted by a quarterback shift. They possessed enough talent around and beyond the man under center to regain and build a lead. The win snaps a 25-game streak in which the Browns lost each time they trailed by eight or more points, responding to a 10-point deficit with 17 unanswered points of their own and 20 unanswered points to end the game.
Weeden, while shaky, also made plays, including two third-down conversions in the second quarter to Jordan Cameron and Greg Little that ultimately set up Willis McGahee's one-yard rushing touchdown. He also threw what became a 37-yard touchdown to Gordon that tied the game at 24, and a 3rd-and-18 conversion that led to a Billy Cundiff field goal to put the Browns up six, 30-24, with just over two minutes remaining in the game.
Historically speaking, the Browns do not wins game such as these, but yet here they stand, at 3-2 for the first time since 2001 and, for the moment, in sole possession of first place. It's a testament to Weeden's ability to come in and perform admirably in considerably difficult circumstances (including boos from the home crowd to welcome him), but it's also a credit to the team's defense and special teams. When coaches talk about winning in all three phases of the game, this is what they mean.
If a team can win after losing their QB in their second series of the game, they're truly headed in the right direction. Yes, the Bills lost Manuel, Johnson and running back C.J. Spiller, but it was a complete team-effort from Cleveland. Though Brian Hoyer might be better under center for the Browns, Weeden's return didn't result in their first loss in three weeks.
This win was a sign of progress in Cleveland—a sign that the perennially hard-luck Browns might finally possess the ability to overcome and turn a bad situation into a positive one. If there was any question of the overall skill and character of this Cleveland Browns squad, it was answered in their impressive defeat of Buffalo on Thursday.