CLEVELAND — Brandon Weeden lost his starting job, but never any confidence.
He promised that if he ever got the chance to start for the Browns again he would make the most of it.
And on Thursday night, in front of a home crowd that booed some of his early throws and a national TV audience, Weeden came to Cleveland’s rescue.
Weeden replaced injured starter Brian Hoyer and rallied the Browns to a 37-24 win Thursday night over the Buffalo Bills, who also lost starting rookie quarterback EJ Manuel with a knee injury.
“You can only control what you can control,” Weeden said. “I’m just sticking my neck on the line for this football team. I prepared like I was starting, but it was tough with zero reps the last two weeks. I was a little rusty to start.”
Weeden threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Josh Gordon in the third quarter as the Browns (3-2) won their third straight and temporarily moved into sole possession of first place in the AFC North. It’s the Browns best record after five games since they were 3-2 in 2001.
“”We don’t care about history,” Gordon said. “This is a new year and this is a new team.”
Safety T.J. Ward intercepted rookie Jeff Tuel’s pass and returned it 44 yards for a TD with 1:44 left to end any comeback hopes for the Bills (2-3).
“We’re a hungry football team,” Weeden said. “It took all three phases.”
Hoyer sustained a potentially serious right knee injury on a scramble in the first quarter, and Manuel was forced out after taking a helmet to his right knee on a run in the third. Neither returned and their injuries could impact both teams’ seasons.
C.J. Spiller had a 54-yard TD run and Fred Jackson had a pair of 1-yard TD runs for the Bills, who could do nothing on offense once Manuel left the game.
Billy Cundiff kicked field goals of 24 and 44 yards in the fourth quarter for the Browns, who overcame a 10-0 deficit and were down 24-17 less than two minutes into the second quarter.
Cundiff’s second kick with 2:91 left put the Browns ahead 30-24, and Cleveland turned it over to their third-ranked overall defense.
With the Bills still within a TD, Tuel locked in on Robert Woods and never saw Ward, who cut in front of the receiver and scored untouched, allowing Cleveland fans to relax following a hectic second half.
Travis Benjamin had an electrifying 79-yard TD punt return in the first half for Cleveland.
Beyond the quarterbacks, both teams had one other key player go down with an injury.
Bills leading receiver Stevie Johnson injured his back in the first half and didn’t return. Johnson caught two catches for 19 yards before he went out.
Browns defensive end Desmond Bryant was taken to the Cleveland Clinic in the third quarter after experiencing shortness of breath. Last year with Oakland, Bryant had to be hospitalized during a game with an irregular heartbeat, but returned to play the next week
With Buffalo leading 24-17, Weeden found a streaking Gordon down the left sideline and the wide receiver made a juggling catch with 5:53 left in the quarter.
It was Weeden’s first TD pass since Week 1, and his first scoring connection this season with Gordon, who was suspended for the first two games.
Weeden started slowly but finished 13 of 24 for 197 yards, and was sacked five times.
Weeden missed Cleveland’s past two games, and although he had been cleared to play this week, Browns coach Rob Chudzinski chose to stay with Hoyer, who had beaten Minnesota and Cincinnati the past two weeks, throwing clinching TDs late in both wins.
But Hoyer, the hometown kid with Browns roots having a storybook start in his hometown, didn’t make it out of the first quarter.
With the Browns trailing 7-0, Hoyer took off on an 11-yard run and was sliding after picking up the first down when he was hit from the side by rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso.
Both of Hoyer’s knees were bent awkwardly on the hit in front of Cleveland’s bench, and several players and coaches yelled for a penalty to be called on Alonso. Hoyer stayed on the ground for several moments before he was assisted to a trainer’s table. After he was examined, Hoyer limped unassisted to the locker room for tests and treatment.
Hoyer was attempting to become the first quarterback in team history to win his first three starts, now he may not get back on the field this season.
Chudzinski said Hoyer had a sprained knee and would have an MRI on Friday.
Manuel got hurt at the end of a 14-yard when he was hammered near the sideline by Browns safety Tashaun Gipson. Manuel walked off the field attempted to get his knee loose on the sideline by jogging and riding a stationary bike. But after having his knee examined, he jogged to the locker room with two trainers.
Tuel went just 8 of 20 for 80 yards.
The Browns trailed 10-0 before tying it with 3:52 left in the second quarter on Willis McGahee’s 1-yard TD run.
Cleveland then forced a punt and the speedy Benjamin caught it at his own 21. He immediately broke to the left, weaved through traffic and picked up a few blocks as he neared the Browns’ sideline. With only punter Shawn Powell in his way, Benjamin broke through the tackle with ease and raced into the end zone with 2:20 left before leaping into the Dawg Pound section to celebrate with fans.