The Buffalo Bills lost quarterback EJ Manuel to a knee injury, gave up a punt return for a touchdown and fell to the Cleveland Browns, 37-24, Thursday night.
It was a pulsating, back-and-forth battle that saw the Bills take a 24-17 third-quarter lead.
However, the Browns rallied for 20 straight points to win their third straight game and improve to 3-2.
Manuel went out of the game with 8:02 left in the third quarter. The Bills’ rookie QB took a blow to the knee from Browns safety Tashaun Gipson at the end of a 14-yard scramble to the Cleveland 13-yard line.
Coach Doug Marrone called Manuel’s injury a knee sprain. Manuel was able to walk around on the sideline and throw some warm-up passes after the hit. But a few minutes later, he walked to the locker room and was declared out for the game.
Backup Jeff Tuel came on and finished off the drive for a touchdown.
But Tuel, the undrafted rookie out of Washington State, could not mount any offense the rest of the game. The next four drives with Tuel at the helm produced just one first down.
Buffalo had one last chance to win when they got the ball at their own 20-yard line with 2:19 left. But a Tuel pass for Robert Woods was intercepted by safety T.J. Ward and returned 44 yards for a touchdown.
“They buzzed down … right before the snap and for some reason, he wasn’t able to see it,” Marrone said of Tuel’s read on the Ward interception.
The Bills played most of the game without top receiver Stevie Johnson, who went out with a sore back in the first quarter.
“You lose those two guys and it’s difficult,” Marrone said of Manuel and Johnson. “We had a lot of things in for Stevie in this game out of the slot.”
The Bills dropped to 2-3 and now are off for nine days before returning home to play Cincinnati.
“We gave up big plays, and we didn’t make enough,” Marrone said.
Cleveland won despite losing its starting quarterback, Brian Hoyer, to a knee injury early in the first quarter.
Hoyer’s replacement, Brandon Weeden, came on and played well.
Weeden, Cleveland’s first-round draft choice in 2012, completed 13-of-24 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown. Weeden made no turnovers.
It took Weeden almost no time to even the score after the Bills took the 24-17 lead. Weeden drove Cleveland 74 yards in two plays. He hit star receiver Josh Gordon on a 37-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline. Bills cornerback Aaron Williams had decent coverage on the play and tipped the ball, but Gordon made a juggling catch in the end zone.
After that, the Browns added two field goals from Billy Cundiff to take a 30-24 lead.
Ward iced the win with his TD return.
The most spectacular play of the game was made by Cleveland’s Travis Benjamin, who took a second quarter punt back 79 yards for a score. Benjamin also had a 57-yard return, which set up an early Cleveland field goal. He set the Browns’ single-game record with 179 punt return yards.
The fact the Bills had a third-quarter lead was due to a great degree to their running game.
C.J. Spiller, playing despite a sore ankle, scored on a 54-yard run on the third play from scrimmage in the second half to tie the game, 17-17.
Cleveland entered the game allowing just 76 rushing yards a game, the fourth-lowest total in the league.
Buffalo rushed 31 times for 155 yards. Spiller had eight carries for 66 yards. Fred Jackson, playing on a sprained knee, had 53 yards on 17 carries.
Manuel hit 11-of-20 passes for 129 yards. Tuel was just 8 of 20 for 80 yards.
The Bills outgained the Browns, 343-290, but Cleveland held a massive edge in kick return yards, 223-34.
Cleveland running back Willis McGahee was limited to just a 2.8-yard average on 26 carries. He gained 72 yards.
The Bills got off to a fast start.
The Bills took a 7-0 lead just 1:44 into the game then added a field goal to forge a 10-0 advantage after the first quarter.
Buffalo’s defense forced a quick three-and-out series by the Browns, then Jim Leonhard returned a punt 24 yards to the Cleveland 32.
After a first-down run, the Bills executed a trick play. Manuel handed to receiver T.J. Graham on an end around. Graham threw a pass deep down the right side of the field for Johnson, who tumbled to the ground with Browns cornerback Joe Haden. The officials called pass interference on Haden, and the 29-yard penalty gave Buffalo the ball at the 1-yard line. Jackson plunged into the end zone on the next play to give the Bills the lead.
Buffalo marched 56 yards on its second drive to a field goal. The march took 12 plays and was capped by a 52-yard kick by Dan Carpenter to make the score, 10-0.
The game was the second of a rare three-game homestand for Cleveland, which beat Cincinnati last week and plays host to Detroit next week.
Both the Bills and the Browns play six of their last 10 games on the road.