The Cleveland Browns tallied their fifth win of the season, and fourth in their last five games, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday in a way we haven't seen so far this season: as an entire football team.
In the NFL, where the level of talent is as dense on each roster as morning fog, capitalizing on a few plays here and there make all the difference.
It's something new for old and younger Browns alike.
"We've been in close games every year that I've been here," said left tackle Joe Thomas. "Since I've been here, the close games have typically gone in the other teams direction."
"This isn't like college," said running back Terrance West in the locker room after the 22-17 game. "Every team can beat you."
West, Thomas and the new-look Browns are realizing Cleveland possesses the trait most playoff contenders have: good teams find ways to win, even when they don't play their best football. The Browns did it a week ago against Oakland behind a defensive resurgence led by Donte Whitner. They clawed and scratched, tooth-and-nail at Tennessee for a historic comeback win in Week 5. Brian Hoyer has gone toe-to-toe against Drew Brees late in a game; Cleveland has blown out an archrival in Pittsburgh, 31-10.
And now Sunday's victory: a resilient performance bound together by offense, defense and special teams.
It's not hard to argue for those who watched the entire Browns-Buccaneers game that Tampa Bay looked like the better team for a majority of the game. A late third quarter touchdown pass from Mike Glennon to Mike Evans (his second of the day) temporarily knocked the wind out of Cleveland's sails. Bobby Rainey ran for bunches at a time, finishing with 87 yards on only 18 carries.
The offense stalled several times, too, settling for field goals. A 4-4 record was on the table if Cleveland didn't respond as it trailed 17-16.
But clinging onto leads and momentum only meant so much for Tampa Bay. The Browns are now talented, well-coached and most notably, confident enough to kick up the pressure and bury opponents.
"This is the ultimate team sport," Hoyer said at the podium following the win, his eighth in 11 tries as the Cleveland starter.
"It wasn't always pretty with the way our offense was playing, but we're 5-3, and it doesn't say in the box score tomorrow, 'Well, the offense didn't play so great and it was close but they won'. It says 5-3."
"This year we are doing a good job of finding a way to win at the end," said Thomas.
There were five plays that sunk the Buccaneers – two on offense, one on defense and two on special teams. Some mattered more than others, but they all culminated in a victory. We'll start in reverse chronological order with the two plays on offense – both of which actually happened in the same sequence.
The Browns were in business with the ball the Tampa 34-yard line, trailing 17-16 with 9:42 left in the fourth quarter. The play call was a pass, where undrafted rookie receiver Taylor Gabriel was one of the top targets, on a 6-yard comeback route. Hoyer read the defense and realized the Buccaneers were playing the same way they did on a near interception from the quarterback earlier in the game.
"I was a little nervous when I saw that coverage…I was a little hesitant." said Hoyer.
Hoyer wanted to hold onto the rock and see if he could pull something out of his bag of tricks. He sensed some pressure, scanned the defense and saw there was room to drift towards his left. He drifted, drifted…and lo and behold the rookie from Abilene Christian had broken free of the defense again. Gabriel snagged the ball in the end zone, altering his route to a deep sprint to the end zone on the fly and the lead against the Bucs was now permanently in Cleveland's possession.
But back to Hoyer sensing pressure…How did that feeling quickly evaporate? Terrance West, clocked blitzing linebacker Lavonte David, by going low. West actually outsmarted the All-Pro linebacker. His 48 yards weren't overwhelming, but ever since his benching, the third-round pick from Towson is silencing many of his critics in the local media.
"I did see [David] blitzing from the jump but I acted like I didn't see him," West explained. "They tried to throw me off with the middle linebacker…I acted like I didn't see him coming off the edge and I just chopped him."
"The young guys have stepped up really big," said Paul Kruger, who finished with a sack, now his sixth of the season. "Terrance West had a big game, a couple of huge blocks that I think you would have to watch on film to go back and see. Those little plays make a big difference in a game."
To get the ball within striking distance, it encompassed the most team inspired. The Browns punt return/punt blocking had been problematic all season long. On Sunday, it was part of the solution.
Thanks to his teammate Tank Carder picking up two blockers, Craig Robertson was able to break free up the middle, clobbering the football on a punt deflection – just how special teams coordinator Chris Tabor drew it up in practice. The Hoyer-Gabriel touchdown that followed cemented the win.
"Anything to give the team a spark," said Robertson about his increased importance on special teams. "We pride ourselves in the [special teams] room that we have to find a way to give the team a spark. And we did it today."
With a 1-6 record, Tampa Bay certainly didn't play scared. They trusted Mike Glennon to try and make enough plays to win. In the second quarter, that trust presented a problem for the Bucs. Glennon's deep pass intended for Evans was a touch underthrown. Cornerback Joe Haden glided in gracefully at the last second, batting the ball towards Donte Whitner – almost looking like teammates on a beach volleyball court. Whitner elegantly collected the football and fled 54 yards down the sideline.
Back from a nagging quad injury, Billy Winn reacquainted himself with the Dawg Pound faithful less than five minutes into the game. Winn, a former skateboarder, soared through the air like Tony Hawk, hurdling two Buccaneers blockers, pushing off their unknowingly backs and into the flight of the football. Murray's kick ricocheted off Winn's arms and the defensive lineman had kept Tampa Bay of the scoreboard. Those three extra points at the end of the game could've completely altered the outcome.
"I saw I had the gap to myself, so I said, 'Alright. Bet. Here we go,'" recalled Winn. "I lined up, switched my stance and timed up my jump and came scott-free."
There were so many other subtleties to the victory, too. Brian Hoyer threw for 300 yards for the first time all season. Tashaun Gipson upped his league leading interception total to six. Gabriel's five catches were a career-high.
The individual performances screamed loudly in Cleveland. But when it was all said and done, it was the team effort that has the Browns soaring high on confidence as a chance for first-place in the AFC North awaits Thursday night in Cincinnati.