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Browns Enjoy Surprising View From Atop Division

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CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 3: Tackle Joe Thomas #73 and center Alex Mack #55 of the Cleveland Browns celebrate after defeating the Buffalo Bills during the first half at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 3, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Browns defeated the Bills 37-24. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND, OH – OCTOBER 3: Tackle Joe Thomas #73 and center Alex Mack #55 of the Cleveland Browns celebrate after defeating the Buffalo Bills during the first half at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 3, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Browns defeated the Bills 37-24. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

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TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer

BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas was just shy of his 11th birthday the last time the Cleveland Browns were in first place through five games.

Bill Clinton was President. Gas was $1.23 per gallon, and Tom Brady was an unknown quarterback at the bottom of Michigan’s depth chart.

Way back in 1995, Thomas was in fifth grade and the Browns were 3-2 and tied with Pittsburgh atop the AFC Central. After coach Bill Belichick’s team lost to Buffalo on Oct. 2 that year, there were no obvious signs owner Art Modell was about to uproot Cleveland’s franchise and move it to Baltimore, a decision that would scar many Browns fans forever.

“Really? That long ago?” said Thomas, who initially guessed 1997 before realizing the Browns didn’t even exist that season. “I guess it’s been a while.”

But with unshakable resiliency, the Browns (3-2) have climbed to the top.

They’ve reeled off three straight victories and enter their sixth game of 2013 tied with Cincinnati and Baltimore for first in the AFC North. Nobody, and don’t believe anyone who said they did, saw this coming.

Not after a 0-2 start. Not after they traded running back Trent Richardson. Not after installing a third-string quarterback as their starter. Not with a first-year coach.

Yet here they are, and the Browns, who won a combined 23 games in the five previous seasons, intend to stay.

“It’s good, but we’re not overjoyed,” said safety T.J. Ward. “We’re not celebrating and that’s what I like about us. We’re staying grounded and we’re focused on the next win and the next team.”

On Monday, the Browns returned to work after a rare weekend off following Thursday night’s 37-24 win over Buffalo. It was their first day back on the practice field since quarterback Brian Hoyer, the former backup who sparked them to consecutive wins, sustained a season-ending knee injury against the Bills.

It was another blow to the Browns, but they’ve been warding off shots all season.

Nothing seems to rattle them.

“They’re relentless,” coach Rob Chudzinski said. “They don’t flinch.”

They’ve handled every test thus far. After losing to Miami and Baltimore, the Browns were forced to make a change at quarterback when Brandon Weeden sprained his right thumb. That was followed by the stunning Richardson trade, a deal viewed by some as the front office surrendering the season.

However, the move galvanized Cleveland’s locker room. If there was any master plan to better position them for next year’s draft, the Browns had other ideas.

“They have each other’s backs,” Chudzinski said. “It’s great from that standpoint. You don’t see an offense versus a defense, or where you have these divisions. Everybody is just real positive. You see guys supporting each other from the opposite sides of the ball and they rally around each other. It’s a good thing to have when you’re in a team sport for sure, a lot of young guys who are learning how to play and getting better as we go.”

Running back Willis McGahee noticed something different about these Browns from the first moment he joined them.

Signed after Richardson was traded, McGahee, who has also played for Buffalo, Baltimore and Denver, sensed a confidence in Cleveland’s players during his first practice.

“They have a swagger,” he said. “That’s the way it was when I was in college (at Miami). We had a confidence. We didn’t care who we played, we were going to do this and that. Now they’re getting it, and now that we’ve won these last three games, that’s added more fuel to the fire. It’s a good thing.”

The Browns, who will host the Detroit Lions on Sunday, hope to keep the momentum going under Weeden. He came off the bench to replace Hoyer and rallied the Browns past the Bills and now gets a second chance to establish himself as the team’s future QB.

Thomas said Weeden’s steadiness after getting injured, losing his job to Hoyer and then coming through when called upon, sent the perfect message through Cleveland’s locker room.

“Brandon did a really good job showing everyone on this team how to handle a tough situation,’” he said.

The Browns have been handling difficulty all season, and must show they can deal with success.

“I think we’ll continue to be a hungry team,” Chudzinski said. “It’s not perfect. We’ll have ups and downs, but this is a group of fighters and guys that want to be better and succeed.”

NOTES: Chudzinski said Hoyer will likely get a second medical opinion on his torn ACL before surgery is scheduled. … LB Jabaal Sheard (sprained knee) wore a brace while working with trainers during practice. … FB Chris Ogbonnaya, in the NFL’s concussion protocol program, did some light running before practice. … DE Billy Winn (quadriceps) said his injury has improved and he could play this week after missing the past two games. … Chudzinski said punt return specialist Travis Benjamin will not double up and handle kickoffs. Benjamin, who returned a punt 79 yards for a TD against the Bills, lacks the size and running style to take back kickoffs, the coach said.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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