CLEVELAND (AP) — The Browns ended the “easy” part of their schedule with another hard-fought win.
Brian Hoyer threw a 34-yard TD pass to Taylor Gabriel with 8:59 remaining, helping Cleveland complete a favorable three-game stretch with a 22-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
Cleveland was trailing 17-16 when Hoyer completed his second TD pass. Hoyer finished 21 of 34 for 300 yards, two TDs and two interceptions. He improved to 8-3 as Cleveland’s starter.
The Browns (5-3) have their best record at the midway point since 2007, when they won 10 and barely missed the playoffs. Cleveland went 2-1 the past three weeks against Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay, who entered a combined 2-19.
Tampa Bay’s Mike Glennon threw a pair of 24-yard TDs to rookie Mike Evans for the Buccaneers (1-7), who have lost four in a row and five this season by six points or less.
Billy Cundiff kicked three field goals for the improved Browns, who have won four of five under first-year coach Mike Pettine.
Tampa Bay had a chance in the final two minutes, but couldn’t convert on a 4th-and-11 with 1:45 left. The Bucs appeared to pick up a first down on the previous play, but Evans was called for pass interference.
The Browns didn’t put the Bucs away until late as Cleveland nearly got caught looking ahead to a Thursday night matchup with AFC North rival Cincinnati.
Hoyer’s TD pass to Gabriel was set up by Cleveland linebacker Craig Robertson, who broke through and deflected a Tampa Bay punt to give the Browns the ball at the Bucs 35.
Two plays later, Hoyer dropped back and was about to be hit by Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David on a blitz. But rookie running back Terrance West alertly stepped up and got a piece of the Buccaneers linebacker, giving Hoyer enough time to loft his scoring pass to Gabriel and giving the Browns a 22-17 lead.
Glennon went 17 of 33 for 260 yards, and fell to 1-4 while filling in for injured starter Josh McCown.
His second 24-yard scoring pass to Evans put the Bucs ahead 17-16.
Glennon floated a pass to the back shoulder of Evans, who made a twisting catch and was able to get both feet in for the score. As he did after his first score, Evans looked at Cleveland’s sideline and rubbed his fingers together in the “money-making” gesture his former college teammate, Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel, made famous at Texas A&M.
A costly penalty by Tampa Bay star defensive end Gerald McCoy helped the Browns take a 16-10 lead. The Browns were lining up for a go-ahead field goal when McCoy, who signed a six-year, $95.2 million in October, was whistled for a neutral-zone infraction. Cleveland converted on 4th-and-1 and two plays later, Hoyer hit a wide-open West.
For the first time this season, the Buccaneers led at halftime. They were up 10-9 following a disjointed opening 30 minutes in which both teams blew scoring chances and had ugly turnovers. Tampa Bay had been outscored 126-27 in the first half of its first six games this season.
Glennon’s 24-yard TD strike to Evans capped an 80-yard drive that nearly ended with a fumble. Glennon was stripped and Cleveland recovered, however Browns defensive lineman Desmond Bryant was called for a hands-to-the-face penalty, giving the ball back to the Buccaneers.
They capitalized when Evans got behind cornerback K’Waun Williams on a third-and-11 and hauled in Glennon’s pass. Evans has caught at least four passes in his first seven games.
Cundiff’s 29-yard field goal, set up by safety Donte Whitner’s interception, gave the Browns a 6-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Browns defensive end Billy Winn set up Cleveland’s first score by blocking a 31-yard field-goal attempt by Tampa Bay’s Patrick Murray. Winn put his hands on the shoulders of two Bucs lineman and propelled himself over them like he was jumping the turnstile at an amusement park.