BEREA, Ohio — Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas was just shy of his 11th birthday the last time the Cleveland Browns were in first place through five games.
Bill Clinton was President. Gas was $1.23 per gallon, and Tom Brady was an unknown quarterback at the bottom of Michigan's depth chart.
Way back in 1995, Thomas was in fifth grade and the Browns were 3-2 and tied with Pittsburgh atop the AFC Central. After coach Bill Belichick's team lost to Buffalo on Oct. 2 that year, there were no obvious signs owner Art Modell was about to uproot Cleveland's franchise and move it to Baltimore, a decision that would scar many Browns fans forever.
"Really? That long ago?" said Thomas, who initially guessed 1997 before realizing the Browns didn't even exist that season. "I guess it's been a while."
But with unshakable resiliency, the Browns (3-2) have climbed to the top.
They've reeled off three straight victories and enter their sixth game of 2013 tied with Cincinnati and Baltimore for first in the AFC North. Nobody, and don't believe anyone who said they did, saw this coming.
Not after a 0-2 start. Not after they traded running back Trent Richardson. Not after installing a third-string quarterback as their starter. Not with a first-year coach.
Yet here they are, and the Browns, who won a combined 23 games in the five previous seasons, intend to stay.
"It's good, but we're not overjoyed," said safety T.J. Ward. "We're not celebrating, and that's what I like about us. We're staying grounded, and we're focused on the next win and the next team."
On Monday, the Browns returned to work after a rare weekend off following Thursday night's 37-24 win over Buffalo. It was their first day back on the practice field since quarterback Brian Hoyer, the former backup who sparked them to consecutive wins, sustained a season-ending knee injury against the Bills.
It was another blow to the Browns, but they've been warding off shots all season.
Nothing seems to rattle them.
"They're relentless," coach Rob Chudzinski said. "They don't flinch."
They've handled every test thus far. After losing to Miami and Baltimore, the Browns were forced to make a change at quarterback when Brandon Weeden sprained his right thumb. That was followed by the stunning Richardson trade, a deal viewed by some as the front office surrendering the season.
However, the move galvanized Cleveland's locker room. If there was any master plan to better position them for next year's draft, the Browns had other ideas.
Running back Willis McGahee noticed something different about these Browns from the first moment he joined them.
Signed after Richardson was traded, McGahee sensed a confidence during his first practice.
"They have a swagger," he said. "That's the way it was when I was in college [at Miami]. We had a confidence. We didn't care who we played, we were going to do this and that. Now they're getting it, and now that we've won these last three games, that's added more fuel to the fire. It's a good thing."
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