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CLEVELAND – A week ago, Brian Hoyer walked out of FirstEnergy Stadium as a hometown hero.
On Thursday night, the Browns quarterback left on crutches, his right knee immobilized in a brace.
Cleveland's feel-good story is now tinged with pain.
Hoyer, the local kid who led the Browns to back-to-back wins in his first two starts, sustained a potentially serious knee injury Thursday night in a 37-24 win over the Buffalo Bills, who had rookie quarterback EJ Manuel go down with a sprained knee.
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said Hoyer has a sprain and will have an MRI on Friday. But the sight of Hoyer hobbling out of the locker room and the tone of many of his teammates indicated the 27-year-old could miss significant time.
"You hate to see that," said Brandon Weeden, who replaced Hoyer and rallied the Browns (3-2) to their third straight win. "I can't really put it into words, it's a tough situation."
As Hoyer slid following an 11-yard scramble in the first quarter, both of his legs were awkwardly bent when he was hit from the side by Bills rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso just a few yards in front of Cleveland's sideline, which protested for a penalty to be called. Hoyer was in obvious pain as he was checked by Cleveland's medical personnel. He spent a few minutes on a trainer's table on the sideline before limping to the locker room for tests and treatment.
At halftime, Chudzinski told the NFL Network that he feared Hoyer had torn ligaments. He did not go that far afterward, and Chudzinski said he wanted to see the test results before making any predictions about how long Hoyer might be out.
"I don't want to be too premature," he said. "Let's find out what the status is and see what the MRI says. Obviously any time you lose a guy and he has to go out of the game, a guy that has done what he has done, it's disappointing."
Just when Cleveland's quarterback conundrum seemed settled, a new development.
Hoyer had taken the starting job from Weeden, who sprained his thumb in Week 2 and was only cleared to play this week. Chudzinski decided to stick with Hoyer, but will now have to go with Weeden, who threw a 37-yard TD pass to Josh Gordon in the third quarter to rally the Browns, who trailed 10-0 in the first half and 24-17 in the third quarter.
Hoyer's injury wasn't the only significant one as Manuel also sprained his knee, Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson hurt his back and Browns defensive end Desmond Bryant was hospitalized with shortness of breath.
Here are five things we learned in watching the Browns take over sole possession of first in the AFC North with their win over the Bills.
MANUEL LABOR: Like Hoyer, Manuel was injured on a running play.
At the end of a 14-yard pickup, Manuel was whacked on his right knee by the helmet of Browns safety Tashaun Gipson, who seemed to be a nuisance to the Bills all evening.
Following the game, Bills coach Doug Marrone was drilled by reporters about whether he would prefer Manuel to run out of bounds and not risk injury.
"E.J.'s a tough kid. He took a shot, he scrambled, he made a first down, he was trying to score a touchdown," Marrone said. "What do you say? 'Don't scramble, don't score touchdowns.'"
RUN, TRAVIS, RUN: Browns return specialist Travis Benjamin broke some tackles and a record with a magnificent performance.
Benjamin returned a punt 79 yards for a touchdown in the first half, a dazzling run in which he outran some Bills defenders, avoided others with his shiftiness and ran through a couple tackles. He was a blur wearing brown.
"Fastest man alive," Browns tight end Jordan Cameron said of his teammate. "I don't know why they keep punting to him. But soon they'll figure out that he's the fastest guy on the field."
Benjamin finished with a franchise record 179 yards, bettering the mark held by Eric Metcalf (166) in 1993.
UNHAPPY RETURNS: The Bills gave up two TD returns, Benjamin's and a 44-yard interception runback by Browns safety T.J. Ward, who stepped in front of rookie Jeff Tuel's pass over the middle and took it to the end zone untouched.
"A misread on my part," said Tuel, who finished 8 of 20 for 80 yards. "I didn't see the safety flying down."
STEVIE WONDER: Johnson had two catches for 19 yards — and set up a score by drawing an interference penalty in the end zone — before leaving with his back injury. Johnson missed some practice time in the spring with a back issue and tried to loosen his back with some stretching on the sideline, but retreated to the locker room in the closing minutes of the first half.
Marrone said the Bills had some plays designed for Johnson but couldn't use them.
"He started off well," Marrone said. "He tried to push through it, which I appreciate from him, and we were going to get him some plays."
UP AND DOWN BROWNS: In five weeks, the Browns have changed quarterbacks, traded their star running back, lost two straight and won three in a row. October just began and already they've been through a season's worth of events.
"It's such an adversity-driven league, you've got to respond," Weeden said. "That just shows the strength and the will of this football team."
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org