There are moments in a season that make or break a football team.
After beating the Tennessee Titans 29-28, and improving their record to 2-2, the Cleveland Browns might not have only saved the 2014 campaign, but proven to themselves, their fan base and the league that this is a team that can overcome any deficit.
"This is history in the making," said linebacker Karlos Dansby, who led the team with eight tackles. "We will look at this win as a turning point."
By scoring 27 unanswered points, the Browns made the largest comeback on the road in NFL history. Before Sunday's rally at LP Field, Cleveland's largest comeback was 20 points in a 49-40 victory over the Giants on Dec. 4, 1966, at Municipal Stadium.
In our first-ever one-on-one interview in April, Mike Pettine told me he wanted "the fourth quarter to be our wheelhouse." On Sunday, in Nashville, Pettine's hope became a reality.
The Titans four possessions in the fourth quarter went as follows -- safety, punt, turnover on downs and end of the game -- as they managed only 66 total yards in the final 15 minutes. On the flipside, two of the Browns' three touchdowns came in the fourth quarter – two rocket throws from Brian Hoyer to Travis Benjamin. Cleveland kept the pressure on Tennessee and the Titans crumbled to a superior team.
Self-destructive plays at key moments, seemingly a Browns specialty since returning to the NFL in 1999, happened to Tennessee on Sunday instead of Cleveland.
Tank Carder blocked a punt – the first time the Browns had done so since 2003.
Travis Benjamin's muffed punt in the third quarter was nullified thanks to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for the Titans' Michael Huff, who ended up recovering the fumble, running out of bounds too long.
A Brian Hoyer interception was called back thanks to an illegal contact penalty.
Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker was showing why he was the eighth overall pick in the 2011 draft, but left the game in the second quarter with a hand injury after taking a crushing hit from a soaring Buster Skrine. His replacement, Charlie Whitehurst barely managed to get first-downs and was unable to put any points on the scoreboard for the Titans in the second half.
And on the most critical sequence of the game, with three minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Browns' defense played like a unit. A third-and-1 play was overturned when Pettine threw the red challenge flag on the field for the first time as a head coach. Video evidence The replayed revealed the Titans tight end, Delanie Walker, was short of the first down. On the next play, the Titans curiously went for it on fourth-down on their own side of the 50-yard line, and were met by stone wall of Browns defenders.
"We found a way to make enough plays in the end to win it," said Pettine. "To me, it speaks to the character of the men in the room. The resiliency, the poise, the focus… we are hopeful it will be a boost coming back home against the Steelers."
It's the small instances after the emotional win that paint the picture of the character Pettine speaks about. Actually, it's more like embattled character(s).
Hoyer slowly walked off the field, soaking up the biggest road comeback in NFL history. With his arm draped around Andrew Hawkins, Hoyer told the receiver, "We are never out of anything. Never."
Hoyer is now 5-2 as the Browns starting quarterback. Hoyer sank his teeth into becoming the leader of the offense and never looked back. He's been efficient in every game and he's elevated the play of the receivers around him. Benjamin caught a career-high two touchdown passes and undrafted rookie Taylor Gabriel had a team-high 95 yards receiving.
Coordinators Kyle Shanahan and Jim O'Neil embraced in a giant bear hug. Shanahan's helped lead the Browns to 21 points or more in all of the games, the first time the Browns have done that to start a season since 1969. O'Neil's been instrumental in slowing down New Orleans' Drew Brees and banishing the Titans from any type of production in the second half. The culmination of both young coordinators' hard work could be boiled down to that one emotional embrace.
Paul Kruger pointed with both index fingers and grinned ear-to-ear into a sea of Browns fans, as he trotted off the field. The Dawg Pound South was instrumental in the momentum shift during the second half. At one point, Whitehurst had to call a timeout because of the crowd noise – in his own stadium. ESPN penned an article this summer blasting the Browns for Kruger's contract. Now, it's hard to imagine this defense without number 99 living in the backfield.
A smiling Pettine asked an equipment employee where he could find a lighter for a victory cigar to puff. After years of his success being tied to Rex Ryan, Pettine's now steering his own ship – his way, and effectively. The adjustments he's made in the second half of games is a quality you don't find in most head coaches around the league. The Browns have adopted his forthright attitude on the field.
What separates the cellar dweller NFL teams from winning organizations is something the Browns seem to have discovered the first quarter of the season. And it's a melting pot of circumstances that have given the Browns a new identity.
Adding veteran voices in Donte Whitner and Dansby was paramount. Their presence alone on film scares other teams and inside the building at Berea, both walk-the-walk on the practice field and in the weight room, before talking-the-talk.
Recommitting to running the football has defined this offense. Opponents know it's coming, and they still can't stop it. Ben Tate's 123 yards were a career high.
"For a guy that has been out for a few weeks and probably didn't have his wind back coming off of a knee injury, he did an amazing job," said left tackle Joe Thomas.
All the competitions in training put the extra burden of fighting for a job on the shoulders of many, and it's without question made the Browns mentally tougher.
Most teams would look at a 28-3 score and pack up their effort for the afternoon. This version of the Browns knows it's capable of beating any team in the league when the offense and defense are both playing well at the same time.
If Dansby is right, and this is the turning point for the Browns, then Cleveland will beat Pittsburgh next week at FirstEnergy Stadium. And if that happens, the Browns' momentum is going to be hard for other teams to stop.