Finally! Watching the Browns line up in the "Victory Formation" with one second left on the game clock, it was finally safe to breathe knowing there was nothing between them and a win over the Oakland Raiders. Finally... after a Sheldon Brown interception at precisely the right time to thwart the Raiders chance to score or take the lead late in the game... after a beautifully and masterfully executed 94-yard scoring drive to put the them up two scores... after a desperate and meaningless touchdown drive to bring the Raiders within 3... after an onside kick that sailed untouched out of bounds to leave time for one last snap... Finally! The Browns won a game they should have won. Finally, they won on the road for the first time since Week 2 of the 2011 season... since Pat Shumur's first victory as a head coach in the NFL. Finally! This team is beginning to do the things that they should.
With both teams sitting at 3-8 heading into this week, it was hard to call it a "must-win" game for either franchise, but the more I think about it, it absolutely was a "should-win" game for the Browns. The Browns are the better team, plain and simple. They're just young and have played like it for much of this season. There comes a point in time, however, where being young and inexperienced can no longer be an excuse. It was time to put down the crutches and walk.
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After 11 games, this young team needed to start finding a way to close out games and win, especially against inferior opponents. Beating the Charlie Batch-led, turnover-prone Steelers at home last week was a huge Step One. Taking the show across the country and winning in a hostile environment appropriately dubbed "The Black Hole" was Step Two. Doing it after committing mind-numbing mistakes like Brandon Weeden's early interception to Raiders safety Matt Giordano inside the red zone... or a missed chip shot field goal by "Mr. Reliable" Phil Dawson (albeit on a sloppy field) was Step Three. It's safe to say the Browns are taking the necessary steps toward legitimacy.
In all fairness, the Raiders didn't play as terrible as they've shown a tendency to do at times this season, but they didn't play well enough to win the game. They made far too many mistakes at exactly the wrong times in order to breathe life into the Browns. Penalties, turnovers, dropped passes, and poor execution. It is a formula for losing that looks all too familiar to the trained eye of someone who is used to seeing their own team go down that dastardly road. It was time for the Browns to stop being THAT team. It was time for them to win this game... and they did.
After Weeden's early miscue that took sure points off the board, the Browns defense seemed to back off from their suffocating style they had employed the previous two weeks and reverted back to their early season "bend-but-don't-break" style. It worked as the Raiders were only able to get a field goal in the first half. Buster Skrine struggled in the secondary for much of the day and the Browns couldn't quite seem to get the pressure on Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer that they needed. But overall, the play was solid when it needed to be, especially from Brown, who had several pass breakups, some nice open field tackles and the clutch interception when the Browns needed it the most.
The Browns offense was able to bounce back from Weeden's early struggles and gash the Raiders for some big plays downfield, none more beautiful than the pass to Josh Gordon for a 44-yard touchdown down the left sideline for a 10-0 advantage the Raiders would never overcome. There is no doubt Weeden had an up and down game and made some terrible, bone-headed throws. In all honesty, he's lucky he only threw two interceptions. He stood in the pocket and got batted around for most of the afternoon by a fierce Oakland pass rush.
Despite that, he was able to make plays when he had to keep the Browns offense on the field. The pass to Greg Little to convert on third down deep in their own territory as the crowd was barking at his back just after the Raiders had scored on a perfect pass from Carson Palmer to Rod Streater... the scamper and toss to a wide open Trent Richardson down the sideline to convert on 4th-and-2 earlier in the game... and the overall ability to know when to throw the ball away and live to see another play are enough to have some faith in the rookie gunslinger from Oklahoma.
Part of what makes Weeden special is his ability to shake off the bad plays and bounce back to make things happen when his team needs him to. People are quick to point to his age when criticizing him but it may just be that and his life-experience which allows him to overcome mistakes and not get too rattled as the game goes on. His even-keel temperament and demeanor is exactly what the Browns need in the quarterback of this young offense.
Sure, the accuracy and turnovers are concerning but those are things that can be corrected with experience and preparation. Reading a defense and making all the right pre-snap reads is something that will come to him with time. The ability to forget about the last play, stand in the pocket and complete a huge pass while getting smashed by a defensive lineman is not something that can be coached or taught. If I'm Joe Banner, when I sit down to make my end of the season evaluations, I'm looking around the league and at the incoming draft class and I'm seeing there's hope for Weeden after all.
Finally, much credit goes to Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress for a beautifully called game. Shurmur, too, is learning how to win in this league. There's no denying he has been met with much frustration from the fans and media for his conservative play calling and questionable management skills, both of which are hard to overcome for a team trying to find itself. But this week, credit is given where credit is due. Shurmur and Childress put together a game plan that took advantage of the Raiders' weaknesses and finally put their team in a position to win the game. And it showed.
Having the guts to go for it on fourth down instead of giving the ball back to the Raiders when you're only up by three, especially after being denied on the play before... being aware of the injuries piling up in the Raiders' secondary and attacking them by lining up with three receivers... utilizing Montario Hardesty's quickness by having him come off the bench for a change of pace, so that Trent Richardson would be fresh enough to cap off the final drive and score a touchdown while running precious time off the clock late in the game... Really, what more could you ask from your head coach? Shurmur called a beauty and it set the Browns up to win the game.
Finally! In a game the Browns should have won... IF they did what they had to... IF they took the next step... IF they cut down on penalties, could overcome early gaffes, convert when they needed to, make more plays than their opponent, and execute the game plan... IF they could do what winning football teams do... they would win. And they did.