CLEVELAND -- When the play started, the Browns were 1 yard shy of the goal line. Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer was behind center, handed a direct snap.
By the time the ball left his hand on a fall-away pass, he felt like he had been magically transported halfway downfield, carried closer to the far end zone by disbelief, an exuberant, boyish joy and an overwhelming sense of relief.
At that instant, he and the other 71,000 people inside FirstEnergy Stadium could tell: Hoyer, the hometown kid, was about to be 2-0 as the starting quarterback for the team he grew up cheering.
"I was a little embarrassed," Hoyer later said, joking about his fall-away. "By the time he caught it, I was at the 40-yard line because he was so wide open."
The player who hauled in Hoyer's late fourth-quarter touchdown pass was running back Chris Ogbonnaya, and when he easily crossed the goal line for the 1-yard score with 4:54 remaining, a brash message was sent to the rest of the AFC North and reluctantly received. The Browns, it said, are the division doormat no more. Even without Trent Richardson, they are very much in this race and plan to make life difficult for those teams, like the Bengals, who so many had hitched their hopes to in the preseason.
As the calendar quickly turns to Week 5 -- Cleveland has a short turnaround after Sunday's 17-6 win over Cincinnati with a Thursday night game against Buffalo -- Browns fans are now similarly hitching their hopes onto Hoyer.
The North Olmstead, Ohio, native was impressive in his home debut, compiling a 103.9 passer rating and throwing for 269 yards and two touchdowns. After the first quarter alone, a period that saw him complete all of his first eight passes, Hoyer posted a 147.9 passer rating.
"He did a great job," Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. "We were a little bit too hyped up early on, I'd say. Guys settled in. He settled in and made some good decisions with throws and made good plays. Certainly he's been the spark that I had hoped for."
Chudzinski decided to go with Hoyer two games ago after starter Brandon Weeden had difficulty leading the offense through the first two games. Weeden also got injured in that stretch, making the decision to stick with Hoyer even easier. Part of the decision was to simply shake things up, another part was to see how change might affect the team.
The decision, so far, has paid great dividends.
If it will for a third straight week is anyone's guess at this point. Chudzinski told reporters after the game he still wanted to evaluate game film Monday and determine whether he'll be sticking with Hoyer, going with Weeden or progressing in a whole different direction at quarterback.
One week after helping beat Minnesota late on the road, Hoyer routinely put the Browns in position to score against their in-state rival Sunday afternoon. Even though the Bengals had multiple chances to make the game closer, they probably should have lost by much more. A pair of missed Billy Cundiff field goals took points away from the Browns, and a couple of failed third-down conversions that led to them took away Cleveland scoring chances. Cleveland's 17 total points very easily could been 23 or 24 or 28.
"They've [the offensive players] definitely improved as the season has gone on," Chudzinski said. "The thing that I like about these guys is any time you challenge them or talk about the things we need to improve on, they respond. It's great when you have a group of guys that feel that way and respond that way."
Hoyer's homecoming was aided in large part by tight end Jordan Cameron's 10-catch, one-touchdown effort. It was the second time this season Cameron had nine or more receptions, and it followed up his six-catch performance in Hoyer's debut last week.
"He's taking advantage of the opportunities in front of him," Cameron said of Hoyer. "It's good to see that, especially because he is from this area. He talked about it being a dream to play in front of these fans and get a win against another Ohio team. It's a big day for him and I'm really happy for him."