Browns take sole possession of first, but lose Hoyer

CLEVELAND – The Browns didn’t need quarterback Brian Hoyer this time.

Not with Travis Benjamin returning punts. Not with T.J. Ward making the biggest defensive play of the season.

The Browns may have lost their starting quarterback for the season with a knee injury, but they received enough help from other areas to extend their winning streak to three straight with a 37-24 decision over the Buffalo Bills Thursday at First Energy Stadium.

Brandon Weeden, who returned to the role of quarterback after Hoyer’s injury, was far from effective, but he completed a few key passes in doing enough to help the cause.

Benjamin set a team record with 179 yards in punt returns, breaking the previous record of 166 set by Eric Metcalf. Included among Benjamin’s returns was a 71-yarder for a touchdown.

With the offense and special teams contributing, the defense stepped up when Ward stepped in front of a pass for Robert Woods and made the interception at the Buffalo 40. Ward scored on the play to seal the win in the waning minutes.

Jeff Tuel threw the pass that Ward picked off. Tuel entered in the third quarter after starter E.J. Manuel suffered a knee injury when tackled by safety Tashaun Gipson.

“It was a good team win,” Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas said. “We have a lot of talented players. When the offense isn’t playing well, the defense is picking it up. When the offense and defense isn’t doing anything, the special teams come up with big plays.”

Hoyer went down scrambling 11 yards for a first down on the Browns’ second possession. He was hit by Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso.

Weeden entered and immediately had to deal with boos from fans that were stunned by Hoyer’s injury. Weeden struggled early but the Browns were able to cut into a 10-0 deficit with a 30-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff. The score was set up by a 57-yard punt return by Benjamin.

Weeden warmed up on the Browns’ next possession, leading a drive that produced a 1-yard touchdown run by Willis McGahee to tie the score at 10-10.

Lightning then struck twice when Benjamin fielded a punt at the Browns’ 21 and went the distance for a touchdown to give the Browns a 17-10 lead. Benjamin crossed the field and turned the left corner. He cut inside punter Shawn Powell and slipped a tackle near the 20.

“The first time I let the punter push me out of bounds,” Benjamin said. “The second time I cut back inside and I knew he wouldn’t get me.”

The Bills started with a bang in the third quarter, marching 80 yards on three plays to score on a 54-yard run by C.J. Spiller, who was questionable this week with an ankle injury. Spiller made a great cutback and turned the left corner.

Buffalo took a 24-17 lead on a 1-yard run by Fred Jackson. Ward was penalized for interference in the end zone, putting the ball at the 1.

Weeden then had his best possession of the game, connecting with Greg Little for 47 yards and Josh Gordon for 37 yards and a touchdown to tie the score at 24-24.

“We played this season with Weeden, so the chemistry is there,” Gordon said. “He was a little rusty from the injury. We were behind him. Think a little less. React and go out there and have fun.”

Cundiff kicked field goals of 24 and 44 yards to give the Browns a 30-24 lead. Ward’s interception came with 1:44 remaining to play.

“I said, ‘let’s do this. Let’s’ go win the football game,’ ” Weeden told his teammates when he replaced Hoyer.

The Browns got off to a terrible start when Little, returning the opening kick from deep in the end zone, couldn’t get beyond the Browns’ 8. Gordon then dropped a pass that might have gone for a touchdown.

Jim Leonhard returned a punt 25 yards to the Browns’ 32. The Bills covered the remaining distance on two plays, with Jackson scoring on a 1-yard run.

Dan Carpenter kicked a 52-yard field goal to give the Bills a 10-0 lead.

The Browns host the Lions Sunday, Oct. 13.