CHRIS O'MEARA / AP Enlarge
TAMPA — After insisting that facing his old team was not a big deal, Tampa Bay's Kellen Winslow did an about-face against the Cleveland Browns.
The Buccaneers tight end set the emotional tone for a 17-14 season-opening victory Sunday, running out of the tunnel during pregame introductions carrying a Bucs flag and running over to the opposing sideline to wave it in front of the Browns.
“It was just having fun. If you can intimidate them or get them out of their mind games or get them thinking about other stuff than the game, then I'm all for it,” Winslow said after Josh Freeman returned from three-week layoff because of a broken thumb to toss a pair of touchdown passes.
Winslow spent five sometimes tumultuous seasons with the Browns before being traded to the Bucs in 2009. He had a pair of 80-catch seasons and made the Pro Bowl once in Cleveland, but couldn't escape a perception that he was a troublesome presence.
Winslow led Tampa Bay in receptions, yards and TDs in 2009 and says he's never been happier.
“We didn't win very much over there. When I got traded, it felt very personal. I'm in a better situation now with a coach like Raheem Morris,” said Winslow, who was dealt for two draft picks after Cleveland hired coach Eric Mangini.
“I felt that wasn't the situation I should be in,” the seventh-year pro added. “He came in and he wanted his guys. That's all it is. I've moved on.”
Freeman threw a 3-yard TD pass to Mike Williams late in the first half. The second-year pro kept a go-ahead drive alive with a key third-down completion, then found Micheal Spurlock in the end zone for a 33-yard score that put Tampa Bay ahead 17-14 with just under seven minutes to go.
The victory was satisfying for the Bucs, who stumbled to an 0-7 start a year ago and are trying win back fans.
Sunday's announced attendance was 47,211 — more than 18,000 shy of capacity — and a regular season game was blacked out locally for the first time since 1997.
Cleveland moved the ball almost at will early, but struggled after building a 14-3 lead. The Browns with three turnovers — two interceptions and a fumble — and each was costly.
“We're better than we just did. We just played Browns vs. Browns, and the Browns lost,” Cleveland receiver/kick return specialist Joshua Cribbs said. “I would love to give Tampa a lot of credit. They've got talented guys out there, but we beat ourselves. We were the better team, but not today.”
Jake Delhomme went 20 of 37 for 227 yards and two interceptions in his debut for the Browns, who have not begun a season with a win since 2004. They're 1-11 in openers since the club returned as an expansion franchise in 1999.
Seemingly in control and hoping to build onto a 14-3 lead before halftime, an off-balance Delhomme threw an ill-advised, sidearm pass that Ronde Barber intercepted and returned 65 yards before running out of gas and being pushed out at the Browns 3.
Freeman threw his first TD pass on the next play.
The Browns weren't the same after that.
Delhomme, who threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Massaquoi for an early 7-0 lead, put together one promising drive after halftime. But the third-quarter march ended when Peyton Hillis, whose 10-yard TD burst had put the Browns up 14-3, fumbled at the Bucs 14.
“I think I'm more disappointed than anyone else. You want to start the season 1-0. We had great preparation. A great week of work,” Delhomme said.
Although there was no visible reaction from the Browns, who were shielded from Winslow by a group of volunteers who were on the field to unfold a large American flag for the national anthem, linebacker Matt Roth said afterward that he found the gesture disrespectful.
Winslow was not as big a factor as he's been in some other games for Tampa Bay, finishing with 4 receptions for 32 yards.
“I have nothing against the players,” Winslow said. “This is our job. So, when you get traded or demoted or anything like that, it's personal. So, you want to get some revenge and you want to play as well as you can. But it was all in fun.”
Freeman completed 17 of 28 passes for 182 yards and was intercepted once after missing the final two weeks of the preseason after breaking a bone in the tip of his right thumb. He returned to practice last Tuesday and did not appear to be hindered gripping or throwing the ball.
Nevertheless, the Bucs didn't have a lot of success moving the ball in the opening half. A 16-yard pass interference penalty and Freeman's 33-yard scramble to the Cleveland 30 set up Connor Barth's 49-yard field goal, and Barber's long interception return enabled Tampa Bay to keep it close despite being outgained 202 yards to 113 in the first two quarters.
The Browns were last in the NFL in offense last season, but look like an entirely different team with the 35-year-old Delhomme running the attack after playing his way out of a job with Carolina last year.
Cleveland started 1-11 a year ago, but won the last four games of the season to help Mangini keep his job.