CLEVELAND — Another fourth-quarter lead was in danger of disappearing when Cleveland's offense met before taking the field.
Three losses in three weeks had stung the Browns.
It was time to change, so running back Peyton Hillis and his teammates gathered and laid out their plan.
“The message was,” Hillis said, “‘We've got to pull this one out.'”
This time they did.
Hillis, a human battering ram in helmet and shoulder pads, rumbled for 102 yards and a touchdown, Phil Dawson kicked three field goals, and the Browns survived a big day by Cincinnati's Terrell Owens for their first win, 23-20 over the Bengals Sunday.
The Browns (1-3) had dropped their first three games by a total of 12 points and in cookie-cutter fashion, failing to finish down the stretch and frustrating coach Eric Mangini with silly, self-inflicted mistakes.
Learning from their errors, they overcame a costly penalty against rookie safety T.J. Ward, made a crucial sack of Carson Palmer in the closing minutes, and withstood a 10-catch, 222-yard performance by an unstoppable Owens, who moved into second place on the NFL career list in receiving yards.
“We didn't falter,” said Hillis, who has surprisingly become Cleveland's best offensive weapon. “The defense came up big and we grinded out the final four minutes. It proves we are improving, and it was good to show our fans we could pull out a win and they could say, ‘Hey, we actually got a team.'”
The Bengals (2-2) thought they had one too. But after having their eight-game winning streak in the AFC North snapped, the defending division champions have some new questions and concerns.
TONY DEJAK / AP Enlarge
“We're 2-2 and we lost to a team that's 0-3 and is better than their record,” said Palmer, who went 25 of 356 for 371 yards and two TDs. “We have to find a way to dig deep. We have to move past this game because this one really hurt. This one stings a lot.”
After taking a 23-10 lead in the third quarter on Dawson's 22-yarder, which moved him within one field goal of tying Hall of Famer Lou Groza's franchise record of 234, the Browns nearly let another lead slip away.
With Cincinnati driving for a possible go-ahead touchdown, linebacker Matt Roth sacked Palmer and forced Bengals coach Marvin Lewis to call for a punt with roughly five minutes left.
Cleveland took over at its 11 with 4:41 remaining and was able to run out the clock by giving the ball to Hillis, acquired in an offseason trade with Denver for quarterback Brady Quinn. On second-and-7, Hillis bounced outside and picked up 24 yards to put the game on ice just before the two-minute warning.
Quarterback Seneca Wallace, who made his third straight start in place of the injured Jake Delhomme, then took a knee three times to expire the clock — a victory formation the Browns hadn't used since last season and one they haven't even practiced.
“We've been playing closer and closer to the way I believe we can and had not gotten the result,” Mangini said. “It's important to know it's something we know we can do on a consistent basis.”
NOTES: The Bengals lost both S Roy Williams and CB Jonathan Joseph to injuries. Williams hurt his right knee in the second half. Joseph injured his right forearm trying to tackle Hillis in the second and did not return. ... Owens passed Isaac Bruce (15,208) into second place on the league's career yardage list. Owens has 15,325 yards, second only to Jerry Rice's 22,895. Owens also jumped Bruce (1,024) for fifth in receptions with 1,030.41.50471 -81.69074 ERROR: Template storyimage.ldo not found in theme default for section Pro!
Cleveland's Peyton Hillis, a human battering ram in helmet and shoulder pads, rumbled for 102 yards and a touchdown, Phil Dawson kicked three field goals, and the Browns survived a big day by Cincinnati's Terrell Owens for their first win, 23-20 over the Bengals Sunday.