Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy — never afraid to speak his mind — went out of his way to rave about Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer.
During the week, McCoy told reporters he respected Hoyer for his intelligence, athleticism and how he conducts himself on and off the field. This wasn't an act, some attempt at psyching out Hoyer. McCoy meant every word.
On Sunday, McCoy said it to Hoyer's face.
"He came up to me during the game and he's like, 'Hey, I meant everything I said,'" Hoyer said following Cleveland's 22-17 victory over the Buccaneers. "To know you're earning the respect around the league means a lot."
And Hoyer isn't the only one getting praise.
The Browns, stuck in a degrading cycle of losing for years, have the NFL's attention.
"They definitely know about the Cleveland Browns," said safety Tashaun Gipson, who picked up his sixth interception. "They take the Browns seriously. They have no choice. You don't win five games by mistake."
Hoyer's 34-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Taylor Gabriel with 8:59 left gave Cleveland the lead, and the Browns confounding defense was able to protect it.
Cleveland's fourth victory in five games helped the Browns (5-3) surpass last year's win total and gave them some momentum heading into Thursday night's matchup with AFC North-leading Cincinnati. The Browns haven't been this good at the midway point since 2007, when Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas was a rookie.
"It's been a long time," Thomas said.
The Browns concluded a three-game stretch against three of the NFL's weakest teams — Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay are a combined 2-23 — with two wins. They were ugly at times, and the Browns still have a lot of areas to clean up, but Cleveland teams in the past probably would have found ways to lose.
Not this one. Hoyer shook off two interceptions and the Browns blocked a field goal and punt to pull out the win.
"For a team who's culture has been losing, I don't know if a few years ago — and I can only speak for my time here — I don't know if a Browns team wins that game," Hoyer said.
The Buccaneers (1-7) have lost four straight and five games by six points or less. Coach Lovie Smith is seeing progress, but it's not translating to wins.
"There is no doubt that we are headed in the right direction, but you could say that about four games ago," Smith said. "We have to find a way to win a game."
"By November football, you are supposed to be playing your best football and we haven't."
There was little time for the Browns to celebrate. Coach Mike Pettine said he and his staff planned to "grind in the office a little bit" on Sunday night to prepare for the Bengals (5-2-1), who will provide a much better measuring stick than Cleveland's three previous opponents.
Here are five other takeaways from the Browns' win over the Buccaneers:
HOYER'S HEART: Hoyer passed for a season-high 300 yards and stayed in after taking several hard hits. He improved to 8-3 as Cleveland's starter, but not before he was booed by some Browns fans who can't let go of the thought of Johnny Manziel behind center.
"Obviously, we need to play better," he said. "Our fans expect more out of us, and we expect more than our fans do."
HEY, ROOMIE: Bucs rookie WR Mike Evans caught a pair of 24-yard TD passes from Mike Glennon and celebrated both scores by making the "money" gesture made famous by his Texas A&M roommate, Manziel.
Evans finished with seven catches for 124 yards, but was called for pass interference in the final two minutes, wiping out a key first down.
WINN'S WIN: Browns defensive end Billy Winn made the most of his first game back in several weeks. Winn blocked a field goal in the first quarter by placing his hands on two Tampa Bay lineman and leaping over them.
"I landed on both feet," said Winn, who had never blocked a kick before. "It's one of my old skateboard moves."
SUB-PAR SUB: Glennon fell to 1-4 since replacing the injured Josh McCown. Glennon made some strong throws, but missed a couple he'd like to have again.
"The two picks in the first half were not good at all," he said. "Should have been potentially two touchdowns, throws that I need to make."
INJURY FRONT: Browns rookie CB Justin Gilbert took a blow to the head in the fourth quarter and was helped from the field, but the team said he did not have a concussion. DB Johnson Bademosi, one of the Browns top special teamers, sustained a concussion on a crack-back block covering a punt. Buccaneers LB Lavonte David was helped off the field after he was dropped by Browns RB Terrance West, but the team said he was not seriously injured.
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