Browns hang on to top Chargers

Defense stops Rivers on final drive

Cleveland Browns safety Eric Hagg (27) and T.J. Ward celebrate after stopping the San Diego Chargers on fourth down in the final seconds of a 7-6 win by the Browns on Sunday in Cleveland.
Cleveland Browns safety Eric Hagg (27) and T.J. Ward celebrate after stopping the San Diego Chargers on fourth down in the final seconds of a 7-6 win by the Browns on Sunday in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND — Browns coach Pat Shurmur urged players before the Chargers game to go out and act like a bunch of kids just playing in the rain, and they did just that. But after coming in, warming their hands by the fire, and savoring this victory like a big, steaming mug of hot chocolate, the kids turned the tables on their head coach and became the adults.

When Shurmur tried to reward them with a "See you Wednesday" — the customary day off on Monday for their 7-6 victory — the kids stomped their feet and said no.

"We know we're not at the top yet, so we really don't need to have any days off," said cornerback Joe Haden. "Our [2-6] record says we still need work."

No, they're not there yet, but the Browns showed by knocking off the 3-4 Chargers in a frigid downpour that they just might be on their way. In the locker room afterward, Browns Hall of Famer Jim Brown embraced Trent Richardson for his fantastic game, and new owner Jimmy Haslam clutched the game ball the team gave him for his first official victory like it was made of crystal.

"We think it's starting to turn for us," said Josh Cribbs. "We love this feeling, and we're going to keep trying to get it."

The Browns won this game because Richardson denied the excruciating pain in his ribs and blasted through the Chargers' second-ranked run defense for 122 yards and a 26-yard touchdown on the Browns' opening drive. Also because the defense held the high-powered Chargers out of the end zone and prevented them from attempting a game-winning field on their final drive.

Much-maligned cornerback Buster Skrine saved the day with a huge pass breakup around the Browns' 35-yard line on fourth-and-10 with 1:20 remaining. A catch there, and the Chargers would have just about been in field goal range. Instead, all Weeden had to do was plant his knee in the soggy turf twice and it was over.

"Let's not kid anybody here, our defense won us that football game,'' Weeden said. "You know field position was a struggle, the weather was a struggle, but games like that in those conditions to have our defense play like they did, they won the football game for us. If I had a game ball I'd give it to those guys. They played their tails off and made play after play against a really good offense."

The defense, which held Rivers to 154 yards passing and high-octane tight end Antonio Gates to two catches for 14 yards, made big plays from start to finish. In the last six quarters, the Browns have held opponents to just three field goals.

Safety T.J. Ward got things rolling on the Chargers' opening drive with a big stop on fourth-and-1 at the Browns' 30, and rookie James-Michael Johnson forced a fumble later in the quarter that was recovered by Billy Winn. Ward later blew up a drive by blitzing up the middle and clocking Rivers, and Jabaal Sheard forced a field goal with a big pass deflection in the red zone.

The Chargers helped a little too, and according to Haden, the Browns also had some divine intervention. With 8:52 left in the third and the Browns hanging on to a 7-3 lead, receiver Robert Meachem got behind the confused defense at the Browns' 24 and let the slick ball slip through his hands with a clear shot to the end zone.

"God was on our side because it was a blown coverage, and he just happened to drop it," said Haden. "That was really, really in our favor."

Ward was the closest defender, but it was a miscommunication between him and Skrine, who both thought the other guy had Meachem covered.

"I took my eyes off it," said Meachem. "I thought about scoring before I caught the ball. Big-time players make big-time plays. It could've been the game-changer."

The Browns' offense and defense came up big in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. After Cribbs let a punt dribble past him to the 3 with 7:37 remaining, Weeden bounced back after a near-interception at the 5 to hit Richardson with a 12-yard swing pass that gained 12 yards on 3rd-and-6 from the 7-yard line. That kept the drive alive for more than five minutes. Granted, it was the Browns' ninth straight punt after the TD, but it got the job done.

"I looked at Brandon and said, 'Look for me. I'm going to be open,''' said Richardson. "I knew they were going to blitz. I concentrated on catching the ball. I knew if I caught the ball it was going to get the first down."

Needing just a field goal to win the game, the Chargers took over at their 12 with 2:36 left and one timeout remaining. They drove to the Browns' 44, where Juqua Parker got good pressure on 3rd-and-10 and rookie Craig Robertson broke up a pass. "We were just telling each other, 'Knuckle up,'" said Ward. "We treated the 35-yard line like it was the end zone."

Then came Skrine's huge breakup, on a pass intended for 6-5 Malcolm Floyd.

"I'm so proud of Buster," said Haden. "He's a really talented athlete and great corner. Him being able to show what everybody in the locker room already knew, it means a lot."

Weeden, who completed only 11 of his 27 passes, overcame four dropped passes and four batted balls. He also hung on tight and threw no picks.

Weeden knew before the game that Richardson, who was held to eight yards on eight carries last week in Indy, was due for a big day. He averaged 5.1 yards a carry against a team that had been limiting backs to 3.5 yards per carry, fourth-best in the league.

"He had a totally had a different mind-set than he did last week," said Weeden. "He was talking to linemen before the game, and he doesn't talk much. He played his tail off, and he was the spark that we needed."