CLEVELAND - The Browns found the perfect gift to present to James Haslam III when he officially assumes ownership of the team Tuesday - a win.
It beats the alternative, which would have been a team-record 12th straight loss.
The Browns avoided setting the dubious record with a 34-24 win over the Cincinnati Bengals before 67,060 Sunday at Browns Stadium. Haslam can now go to the NFL owners' meeting today in Chicago to have his ownership approved feeling a little better about his $1 billion investment.
The Associated Press
Cleveland Browns linebacker Craig Robertson celebrates a defensive play against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Haslam probably doesn't feel as good as coach Pat Shurmur, who's been under the gun to end the losing streak. With the win, the Browns (1-5) are no longer the only team in the NFL without a victory.
"You put a bunch of men together to go out and play a game so that you can feel the joy of winning," Shurmur said. "When it happens, it's terrific. Not so much for me, but for my family and the players. Mondays feel better when you win a game."
There were plenty of heroes in all three phases. Joshua Cribbs had a 60-yard punt return to turn around field position at a critical time. Quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Josh Gordon continue their big-play chemistry with a 71-yard touchdown play in which Gordon made a one-handed catch. Montario Hardesty came off the bench in place of injured running back Trent Richardson and gave the offense 56 yards.
Defensively, cornerback Sheldon Brown returned an interception 19 yards for a touchdown, and Emmanuel Stephens had a strip sack of quarterback Andy Dalton that was recovered by defensive tackle Billy Winn to seal the win.
"We've been so close so many times," Weeden said. "To actually get over the hump and the defense to play the way it did in the second half - Sheldon had the big play - it feels good. It's a lot more fun coming into the locker room with everyone excited. Going to work, tomorrow is going to be a lot more fun than it was the last five weeks."
Trailing 14-7 at halftime, the Browns began to inch back with a 41-yard field goal by Phil Dawson in the third quarter.
Browns cornerback Joe Haden, returning from a four-week suspension, then came up with one of four turnovers by the Browns defense when he grabbed a Dalton pass that had been tipped. Working with a short field from the Bengals' 25, the offense couldn't move beyond the 20, resulting in a 38-yard field goal by Dawson.
Hardesty took center stage on the Browns' next possession. He carried the ball the last four plays of a 10-play, 66-yard march, including a dive over the goal line for a 1-yard touchdown as the Browns took a 20-14 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter.
"The O-line told me they were submarining," Hardesty said. "They were going down low. When they told me that, I was going over the top. I was mad I didn't get in two plays before that."
Mike Nugent kicked a 44-yard field goal for the Bengals (3-3) on the next possession. The Browns answered with a six-play, 63-yard drive that culminated with a 3-yard pass from Weeden to tight end Benjamin Watson. Hardesty had three carries for 23 yards, and Weeden hit tight end Jordan Cameron for 23 yards on the march that extended the lead to 27-17.
The big play came when Brown stepped in front of a Dalton pass for Brandon Tate on the first snap of the next series. Brown had an open path to the end zone and a 34-17 lead.
"I've seen that route combination once or twice in my career," said Brown, an 11-year veteran. "Number two (receiver) goes to the flat. As a corner you see the number one (receiver) run a curl or a slant. This time he ran a slant. Dalton threw the ball, and it happened to be me instead of the receiver.
"Sometimes as a defensive back you start looking for the end zone and not concentrate on catching the ball. I can honestly say that's one of the times in my career where I had the eye-hand coordination to look the ball in before I started to run."
It looked like the final 7:50 would be an easy ride for the Browns, but that changed when Dalton threw a 57-yard touchdown pass to A.J., Green. Green beat the man coverage of Haden.
"I was at the sticks thinking he was running a 17-yard comeback," Haden said. "He wasn't running go routes the whole game. That's all on me."
The Bengals regained possession at their 47 after a punt. They drove to the Browns' 9 when Stephens came off the left side and hit Dalton. Winn picked up the fumble and ran 35 yards.
Dalton connected with Jermaine Gresham on a 55-yard touchdown pass to open the scoring. Gresham had a favorable matchup in man coverage against linebacker Craig Robertson. Gresham broke open off an inside move. He stiff-armed Robertson before breaking free.
Weeden and Gordon then hooked up on their scoring play to tie the score. The Bengals took a 14-7 lead on a 4-yard pass from Dalton to Green.
Weeded finished 17-of-29 for 231 yards, two touchdowns and one interception of a tipped pass. Richardson was held to 37 yards on 14 carries before exiting.
Dalton was 31-of-46 for 381 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. Green had seven receptions for 135 yards.
The Browns are at Indianapolis to play the Colts Sunday.