The Cleveland Browns 26-24 win over the New Orleans Saints only counts for one win in the standings.
But to the Browns' players, head coach Mike Pettine and even the city of Cleveland, the gutsy, last-second victory over a prominent franchise like New Orleans means so much more than a singular tally in the win column: Beating the Saints showed why the Browns have the right ingredients to compete for a playoff spot, this season.
"We understand we aren't the same Cleveland Browns," said safety Donte Whitner in a raucous locker room following the win.
Why did the Browns win the football game? Because for the first time in many years, the players on the field truly thought they could. Season after season, the Browns have been on the Saints' side of the coin – playing well enough to be in the game at the end, but never being able to consistently bury an opponent in crunch time.
Browns head coach Mike Pettine, the man who has completely revamped the way the Browns perceive themselves, stood before the media drenched in sticky yellow Gatorade at the podium.
"I know I represent this group, but this was a Cleveland Browns win," said Pettine. "We wanted it for us. We wanted it for the city."
Cleveland wasn't hoping and praying for the Saints to make a mistake. Pettine has constantly preached his football team will be built on mental toughness.
"We want the end of the game to be our wheelhouse," Pettine told me in our first-ever conversation.
The Saints found out the hard way the Browns' leader can coach a mentality into existence.
When big plays needed to be made in the fourth quarter, someone made them. Karlos Dansby sacked Drew Brees on a critical third-down, forcing New Orleans out of field goal range. The linebacker was easily the best player on defense, recording 12 tackles on bone-crushing hits. The entire defense played a role in limiting the Saints to 14 first quarter yards and the slow start from quarterback Drew Brees threw a wrench in their plans of seizing the momentum early.
Dansby on why the Saints struggled to move the football in the first half: "Our fans. Nobody could hear anything."
The Browns expected Dansby to be a game-changer. It's players like Gary Barnidge who help make beating teams like New Orleans the new expectation in Cleveland. Pettine has breathed confidence like a dragon inside the entire locker room, reiterating that at some time or another, each man on the 53-man roster will play a critical role in winning a game.
Filling in for the injured Pro Bowler Jordan Cameron, Barnidge brought home a 10-yard catch on fourth-down and six. The tight end is mostly known for his skills as a blocker, but he morphed himself into a weapon when his team needed him the most. Without that snag, the Browns lose. Pettine called Barnidge's catch the play of the game.
What makes Barnidge's catch even more significant is because it was the same play-call as last week, late in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh. Brian Hoyer forced in the throw to Barnidge, the pass fell incomplete and the Browns never picked themselves back up offensively.
This time? Hoyer learned from his mistake. He made a better throw, the offense kept moving the chains and the Browns won the game. Hoyer didn't make the same mistake twice.
If there was any doubt heading into the game, the clouds of uncertainty have disappeared: Hoyer can win football games in the NFL. Going 24-for-40 for 204 yards isn't exactly sexy. Leading a 14-play, 85-yard drive with 2:46 left against a defense who was top five in the NFL last season, is what matters. And there are quarterbacks on other NFL teams who couldn't have done what Hoyer did.
"[To] win a game against a team who some think are going to the Super Bowl, it was a pretty big win, for us to come together and see it come to fruition and actually win the game," said Hoyer. "Last week, we obviously got really close, but we came up a little short. To finish it out, it's a great sign of the character of our team."
With 13 seconds on the clock and still a touch out of kicker Billy Cundiff's field goal range, the Browns were on the brink of defeat. Hoyer found wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, streaking down the field unguarded. The Saints had blown coverage on a cover-zero play-call and the stumbling Hawkins hauled in the 28-yard pass play that ended up winning the Browns the game.
"Unbelievable," said wide receiver Miles Austin in the locker room about his quarterback in the final minutes. "There was a lot of crucial moments in that drive, and to have the poise to hang in there and find open guys when chaos is all around you…it's a testament to him and his professionalism."
Against the Saints, the Browns proved two things to the rest of the NFL:
1) Cleveland may rely on their defense, but they won't depend on it solely. Hoyer and the offense can make timely plays to win games.
2) These aren't the same Cleveland Browns. The team will obviously have to prove that next week against Baltimore, but the foundation of expectations for success is now not just a phrase plastered on the walls: it really happened. Pettine has talked about ripping off the rearview mirror. Beating the Saints was the equivalent of tossing that mirror into Lake Erie.