Cleveland Browns management had supposedly given up on this season three weeks ago when they traded running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a first-round draft pick.
The conventional thinking was Browns CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi were consumed with the future and regarded the current roster as expendable.
The players apparently didn't receive the memo about this being another rebuilding season.
The Browns (3-2) have emerged as an unlikely early-season success story and are now in first place in the AFC North entering Sunday, owners of a half-game edge over the Ravens (2-2) and Cincinnati Bengals (2-2). This marks the Browns' first winning record at any point during the past two seasons.
"It's a great turnaround for this city," Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon told reporters. "It's exactly what we've been striving for, for people to just notice us as something else. We've been wanting to turn that page in this city and I think that's exactly what we're working for."
Despite losing hometown hero quarterback Brian Hoyer for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, the Browns manufactured a 37-24 comeback victory over the Buffalo Bills on Thursday night. With quarterback Brandon Weeden out after spraining his thumb against the Ravens, Hoyer won two consecutive starts and is being celebrated for his resolve.
Travis Benjamin ran back a punt 79 yards for a touchdown and set a franchise record with 179 punt return yards and Weeden — replacing the injured Hoyer — found Gordon for a 37-yard touchdown pass and completed 13 of 24 passes for 197 yards and no interceptions for a 95.3 quarterback rating.
It's been a whirlwind few weeks for Weeden, who went from being the starter, to injured to backing up Hoyer, to being a starter again.
"We're a hungry, relentless football team," Weeden told reporters. "To win one like this is big for this locker room. The football team was relying on me. There's no excuses. Eyes are still on you to see how you respond, see how you react."
After Weeden was unimpressive in his first two games — throwing one touchdown and three interceptions — Hoyer's performance captured the imagination of Browns fans.
But perception of Weeden has changed following Thursday's win in a pressure situation, which was also aided by kicker Billy Cundiff, former Ravens running back Willis McGahee and T.J. Ward's interception return for a touchdown.
"I think the guys rallied around him," Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. "I can't say enough about Brandon and being able to play the way he did and get the job done. That doesn't surprise me, responding the way he did says a lot about Brandon."
Reeling Steelers reel in a tackle
Mired in last place, the winless Steelers responded last week by trading for Arizona Cardinals offensive tackle Levi Brown.
He'll replace a disappointing Mike Adams at left tackle, who has contributed to the Steelers' troubles keeping quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (15 sacks, second-most in the NFL) upright. But Brown was discarded by the Cardinals for a reason, and was ripped by Arizona general manager Steve Keim on his way out the door.
"We got below the line work [from Adams], and that's the reality of it," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said during a press conference. "It needs to be above the line and we will turn over any stone for that to happen."
Brown was a first-round bust for the Cardinals out of Penn State.
"Levi Brown was not living up to our expectations on the field," Keim said. "When you realize he is not in the long-term plans, instead of belaboring the point, it's in the best interests of the organization to move on."
The Steelers are trying to turn around their dismal season after starting 0-4 for the first time in 45 years.
"I have great patience," Tomlin said. "We'll continue to work and get better as long as I see belief and effort and continued improvement in detail, because that's what's going to change the outcome of these games. Those that don't, they won't be a part of it, whoever it may be."
Big game for Bengals
The Bengals' resilience and talent will be tested Sunday against the undefeated New England Patriots.
They'll need big games from quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green, who was contained by Browns cornerback Joe Haden in last week's loss.
"When things haven't gone right, I feel like I've bounced back pretty quickly and done some really good things," Dalton told Cincinnati reporters. "I expect that this week. We haven't played to our potential yet. We've done some good things, and we've done some things that have hurt us. It's a big week for us, facing a really good team. So, we have to play our best."
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis remains convinced that his team is heading in the right direction. He'll get a chance to prove it against one of the top teams in the NFL on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
"I think we're carving an identity," Lewis said. "Unless you're sitting here with perfection, you're not sitting here with a particular identity. We're taking strides towards an identity very quickly."
- Pro Football
- Cleveland Browns
- Brandon Weeden
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- Cincinnati Bengals
- Arizona Cardinals
- Baltimore Ravens
- Mike Tomlin
- Marvin Lewis
- Josh Gordon
- Levi Brown
- Mike Adams (football, offensive tackle)
- AFC North
- Buffalo Bills
- Indianapolis Colts
- Ben Roethlisberger
- Andy Dalton