CLEVELAND – Quarterback Brandon Weeden replaced injured starter Brian Hoyer and rallied the Cleveland Browns to a 37-24 win Thursday night over the Buffalo Bills, who also lost starting rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel with a knee injury.
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.
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).
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 its 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 had two catches for 19 yards.
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 limped unassisted to the locker room for tests and treatment.
At halftime, Chudzinski told NFL Network he feared Hoyer has torn ligaments.
BUCCANEERS: Quarterback Josh Freeman was released a week after being benched in favor of rookie Mike Glennon.
Winless Tampa Bay made the latest move during its bye week after General Manager Mark Dominik contacted every other team in the NFL in an unsuccessful attempt to trade Freeman, a 4,000-yard passer a year ago who has posted a league-low 2013 quarterback rating of 59.3 through three games, all losses. Glennon made his first start last Sunday in a 13-10 loss to Arizona.
The release capped a tumultuous month for Freeman, who claimed last week that someone in the Bucs organization leaked confidential information about him being in the NFL substance-abuse program last year.
BRONCOS: Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio only wanted to talk about the Cowboys, not the Trojans.
In his first for-the-record comments since his name’s been bandied about as a possible replacement for Lane Kiffin at USC, Del Rio declined Thursday to address speculation he might return to his alma mater.
Asked if he’d been contacted by USC, the Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator said, “No. No. No, there’s nothing to speak on that subject. I’m really here to talk about the Cowboys and our preparation in getting ready for them.”