MINNEAPOLIS — The young running back was traded away, the third-stringer was picked to start at quarterback, and Cleveland’s jaded fan base was already pushing this week for the first pick in next year’s draft.
The Browns haven’t given up on the season, though.
Minnesota’s might be slipping away.
Jordan Cameron caught three touchdown passes, including the go-ahead grab in the back of the end zone with 51 seconds left, and the Browns kept the Vikings winless with a 31-27 victory Sunday.
“If you let the distractions that are outside of the locker room affect the way you play, then you are tanking the season and you will have no chance,” said Joe Thomas, the three-time All-Pro left tackle.
Brian Hoyer threw for three scores in his second career start, and the Browns (1-2) became the latest team to torch Minnesota’s struggling secondary, which lost top cornerback Chris Cook to a groin injury in the first quarter. Hoyer overcame three interceptions to throw for 321 yards, going 30 for 54. Josh Gordon had 10 catches for 146 yards and a touchdown in his season debut, and Cameron had six receptions for 66 yards.
“It’s just a matter of believing in Brian and believing in ourselves, and we did a good job of that,” Cameron said.
Christian Ponder ran for two touchdowns for the Vikings (0-3), but he threw an interception, lost a fumble and took his sixth sack on the final play of the game. The Vikings went three-and-out six times, twice in the fourth quarter when they could’ve put the game away.
Ponder almost hit Jerome Simpson in a crowd at the goal line on the penultimate play, but the Vikings didn’t get closer than the 34.
“We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and change this around quickly, because we’re going to make sure this doesn’t steamroll and snowball downhill,” Ponder said.
After scoring 16 points over the first two games, dealing 2012 first-round draft pick Trent Richardson to Indianapolis and putting Hoyer in for the injured Brandon Weeden, the Browns looked finished. They were behind 7-0 after a long Vikings touchdown drive and a 45-second possession of their own forced a punt.
But they held Adrian Peterson to 88 yards and one score on 25 rushes, used a fake punt and a fake field goal in the first half to build a lead and kept the Vikings from scoring after Hoyer’s first two interceptions. The third one, by Erin Henderson, set up Ponder’s scramble for 8 yards to tie the game late in the third quarter.
The Vikings got Blair Walsh’s second field goal of the game with 10:47 remaining, but they stalled at the 12 and missed an opportunity there, too. The defense held the Browns without scoring for seven straight possessions, but like last week in the one-point loss at Chicago faltered on the final drive when the failure stung the most.
“I don’t know if guys underestimated the Browns coming in or what the deal was, but we have to take a long look in the mirror and get better,” said defensive end Jared Allen, who was held without a sack or a tackle and was credited with one quarterback pressure against Thomas.
The Browns started at their 45 with 3:21 left and finished the commanding march with a 7-yard pass by Hoyer to the corner for Cameron, the budding standout tight end Cameron who has 20 catches for 267 yards and four scores already this year.
Hoyer, who played for New England and Arizona after a nondescript career at Michigan State, grew up in a suburb of Cleveland rooting for the Browns. So he knew how the fans were feeling after the Richardson trade.
“I used to think that way, too. Hopefully this is a change,” Hoyer said.
Hoyer, whose wife is due with the couple’s second child on Oct. 21, joked he hoped he didn’t send her into labor early with the wild finish. Trailing by three, the Browns could’ve settled for a short tying field goal. But kicker Billy Cundiff was hurting with a quadriceps problem, so that wasn’t a guarantee.
“I told the guys in the huddle, ‘Let’s just go win it right here,’” Hoyer said.
NOTES: Punter/holder Spencer Lanning threw the TD pass to Cameron on the fake FG in the second quarter. He also kicked the last extra point, with Cundiff hurting. According to the NFL, Lanning became the first player since 1968 with a punt, extra point and TD pass in one game. … The Vikings have been out-sacked by their opponents 10-4. … Referee Bill Leavy mistakenly penalized the Vikings after coach Leslie Frazier tried to challenge a ruling on a muffed punt in the second quarter. Minnesota should have lost a timeout instead.