Browns take step for­ward in strange, un­pre­dictable sea­son

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - SPORTS - By TOM WITHERS AP Sports Writer

CLEVE­LAND (AP) >> When the Browns fi­nally reached the end zone after so many em­bar­rass­ing, empty trips in­side the red zone, they also re-dis­cov­ered Rashard Hig­gins, their mys­te­ri­ously lost wide re­ceiver. Per­versely per­fect. This strange, un­pre­dictable sea­son had an­other weird mo­ment.

Des­per­ate for a win, the Browns found a way and ended a four-game skid on Sun­day with a 19-16 win over the Buffalo Bills, a vic­tory that pro­vided re­lief and per­haps a glimpse of Cleve­land’s of­fen­sive future.

Hig­gins, who had in­ex­pli­ca­bly gone from quar­ter­back Baker May­field’s go-to guy last sea­son to coach Fred­die Kitchens’ dog­house through eight games, caught a 7-yard touch­down pass with 1:44 left as the Browns (3-6) tem­po­rar­ily stopped a sea­son that started with play­off chat­ter and Su­per Bowl talk from de­cay­ing into a painful coach­ing search and early dis­cus­sion about NFL draft po­si­tion­ing.

“It can be a great thing for us,” said May­field, who threw two TD passes and had his sec­ond straight game with­out an in­ter­cep­tion. “We still didn’t play per­fect by any means. We can still learn from the film, move for­ward and im­prove. Hav­ing a tight vic­tory against a great team is some­thing that we needed, es­pe­cially at home. Kind of get­ting the mon­key off our back with that one.

“The first win at home in Game 9 isn’t some­thing that usu­ally hap­pens, but it can get us go­ing from here.”

Some miss­ing pieces emerged for the Browns, namely Hig­gins and run­ning back Ka­reem Hunt, who made his de­but fol­low­ing an eight-game NFL sus­pen­sion for two violent, phys­i­cal offfield al­ter­ca­tions last year. Hunt fin­ished with 30 yards rush­ing and 44 re­ceiv­ing on seven catches.

Hig­gins had been the odd­man out, and he only got more play­ing time against the Bills be­cause Kitchens benched An­to­nio Call­away for an un­spec­i­fied dis­ci­plinary in­frac­tion.

It wouldn’t be the Browns with­out some kind of drama.

Hunt’s ad­di­tion to Cleve­land’s of­fense had an im­me­di­ate and dra­matic ef­fect. He per­fectly com­ple­mented Nick Chubb, who ran for 116 yards on 20 car­ries and buf­faloed sev­eral Bills de­fend­ers on a few runs. A tal­ented re­ceiver, Hunt also became a needed check-down for May­field, who didn’t force as many throws to star re­ceivers Odell Beck­ham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.

Kitchens has a full of­fen­sive tool­box at his dis­posal. There are no more ex­cuses, and now it’s up to Kitchens — and May­field — to use this plethora of play­mak­ers wisely.

“Any­time you get two backs in the game, it is tough for de­fenses to play dif­fer­ently,” May­field said. “You have to bring a guy down and you are wor­ried about the re­ceivers on the out­side.”

The two-back set could be­come Cleve­land’s bread and but­ter go­ing for­ward. The Browns will get a chance to test out their new 1-2 punch on Thurs­day night when they host the Pittsburgh Steelers (54), who have shaken off a slow start with four straight wins.

WHAT’S WORK­ING

Chubb never bat­ted an eye when Hunt’s re­turn threat­ened to cur­tail his touches. Against the Bills, the sec­ondyear back sim­ply made the most of his chances.

He has at least 75 yards from scrim­mage in eight con­sec­u­tive games, the league’s long­est ac­tive streak. Chubb has four 100-yard rush­ing games this sea­son and his 919 yards rush­ing are the sixth most by a Browns player through nine games. The top five all be­long to Hall of Famer Jim Brown.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The closer the Browns get to the goal line, the far­ther away they seem. Buffalo stopped Cleve­land on eight con­sec­u­tive plays from in­side the 2 in the first quar­ter and on four more in­side the 5 in the sec­ond quar­ter be­fore Kitchens opted to kick a field goal fol­low­ing a false start.

Chubb was stoned by the Bills on five tries near the goal line.

Kitchens isn’t chang­ing his ap­proach in the shadow of the up­rights.

“I need to call bet­ter plays when we get down there,” he said. “But I am telling you right now, we are run­ning the ball when we get down there.”

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