The Cleveland Browns actually started beating the Oakland Raiders during the free agency month of March.
The additions of Donte Whitner, Andrew Hawkins, Ben Tate, Karlos Dansby – and not to mention locking up Joe Haden long term – are the chief reason the Browns are sitting at 4-3 and in prime position to make a playoff run as we head into November.
The gritty performance, clutch plays and eventual 23-13 win are what general manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine pictured they could transform the Cleveland Browns into a contender.
A clumsy late October game ticked away, deep into the third quarter. On this particular Sunday, neither the Raiders nor Browns offense packed the fuel in their tanks to pull ahead of one another. The Browns were barely clinging onto a 9-6 lead and their grip was loosening. An Oakland drive that started on the Raiders 9-yard line had pushed itself 12-plays into the red zone. It was going to take something impulsive from the Cleveland defense to seize this game.
And Whitner delivered.
Raiders running back Darren McFadden rumbled straight at Whitner, trying to run over the Browns' sturdy safety. Whitner read his body language and shifted his own body even lower. Whitner's helmet landed on the football, which shot directly into the arms of Haden. The big collision from the Browns' free agent acquisition might've saved Cleveland's football season.
"We're coming together," said Whitner in the locker room. "Everybody was introduced to a new scheme, a new coaching staff. After a few weeks in the National Football League and playing live games together, we can only gel. Especially when you have the type of character guys we have.
"We don't have guys out there that just don't care. Guys really care. And when there's a mistake, we go to the film room to fix it."
Whitner told ClevelandBrowns.com in a sit-down interview back in August he always had the itch to come back to Cleveland, but it took a convincing phone call from Farmer to tip the scales and push Whitner back to his hometown.
Haden's 34-yard return off of Whitner's forced fumble sent FirstEnergy Stadium into a frenzy. But the surge of energy wasn't going to matter if the offense kept sputtering.
On the first play after getting the ball back from Whitner's forced fumble, the receiver shook the defense and was wide open for a 32-yard gain. Three plays later Hawkins was shaking hands with the Browns' live animal mascot 'Swagger' after his decisive touchdown put Cleveland up 16-6.
The Browns front office and coaching staff entrusted Hawkins to become Cleveland's leading receiver – even after the Josh Gordon suspension. There was no panic from anyone in Berea. They knew the 5-foot-7 Hawkins was talented enough to help lead them to victories. Guess what: Hawkins isn't just a gadget guy. He's been effective against nearly every NFL defense he's seen in 2014. Against the Raiders it was another 7 catches for 88 yards and a touchdown.
"It's a blessing to be at this point, man," said Hawkins. "I never thought I would be in the position I am now in my wildest dreams."
Now up 16-6, the relentlessness that's been preached by Pettine took over in full affect. Paul Kruger notched another sack upping his total to three on the day. The rest of the pass rushers kept hounding Derek Carr, forcing another fumble recovered by Barkevious Mingo.
"When it was time to tee-off and rush the passer, they did," said Pettine.
It was time for one last thing from the Browns: finish off the Raiders. That's where Tate steps in.
Sunday was another exasperating outing for Cleveland's rushing attack. The Browns carried the football 25 times for 39 yards (1.6 yards per carry). Oakland's safeties lived in the box. It was literally a stalemate.
But when Cleveland needed Tate, he busted through the seemingly indestructible wall of Raiders defenders, hammering his way into the end zone for a 6-yard rushing touchdown. The score put the Browns up 23-6. At the end of the day touchdowns matter more than yardage and Tate's veteran nose was able to sniff the right hole to score.
Tate's a player who wears his emotions on his sleeve. He let his frustration with not being able to run the football known. The calming force to settle down Tate? Quarterback Brian Hoyer, a player Farmer and Pettine definitively chose to be the captain of their offense.
"He stayed positive. He was a good leader today," Tate said about Hoyer. "There were times I was frustrated and he was like, 'Man, don't worry about it. We'll get it going, we'll get it going.' He did what a leader and a quarterback should do."
"No one cares who gets the credit for a win – we just want to win games," Hoyer said after the game.
There's a long road ahead for the 2014 Cleveland Browns, but the path is not dark.
The defense has been tenacious since the second half of the Tennessee game, and is proving they can lead the team to victories. Dating back to last season's brief stint, Hoyer is now 7-3 as the Browns starting quarterback and owns a 91.0 quarterback rating, 8 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in 2014. It wasn't gorgeous against the Raiders, but it was solid enough to silence his doubters.
Finally, when newcomers like Whitner, Hawkins and Tate come through like they did against the Raiders, why shouldn't there be a belief the Browns can push for a wild card spot – or even win the AFC North?