CLEVELAND - For the first time, Hue Jackson stood in front of the Browns as a winner.
Through the injuries, the losses, the negativity and the late-night jokes, his team had stuck together. And as the Browns huddled around him in the postgame locker room, Cleveland’s first-year coach desperately wanted to make a point.
“I told you guys about the veteran players,” he said, stopping and pumping his fist.
Jackson’s voice fell silent, gagged by emotion.
He wrapped his arm around the shoulder of wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who told his teammates he loved them. A few feet away, Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas used the back of his taped hands to wipe tears from his reddened eyes and tight end Gary Barnidge stepped forward to present Jackson with the game ball as players yelled, “Merry Christmas.”
It was over. Thankfully. Mercifully.
After 14 straight losses, the Browns are no longer winless or flirting with unwanted history.
Cleveland ended a 17-game losing streak dating to last season on Saturday, edging the San Diego Chargers 20-17, in the Browns’ home finale, when kicker Josh Lambo missed a tying 45-yard field goal attempt as time expired.
When the ball sailed right of the upright, the Browns and their dedicated fans who came out on Christmas Eve celebrated with hugs and high-fives as if they were going to the playoffs. Who could blame them?
It had been 377 days since Cleveland’s last win, and months of frustration were finally gone.
“I am going to give all the credit to our veteran leadership, players from Joe Thomas to Gary to Joe Haden to Andrew Hawkins,” Jackson said. “I can go on and on and on because this is for them. This is not for me. This is about them. We have a long way to go to get where I want our organization and our football team to get, but today, it is about those guys.
“It is a heck of a Christmas present to all involved because these guys worked so hard.”
Isaiah Crowell rushed for two touchdowns and the Browns (1-14) built a 10-point lead and did just enough down the stretch to hold off the Chargers (5-10), who lost yet another close game and have dropped four straight.
“I know that 1-14 is nothing to celebrate, but as a veteran to these guys, for coach Jackson, it feels incredible,” Hawkins said . “He deserves it more than anything. It’s a special day.”
If not for defensive tackle Jamie Meder, the Browns might still be winless.
But Meder, who grew up in suburban Parma, Ohio, blocked Lambo’s 32-yard field-goal attempt with 3:45 left to preserve Cleveland’s three-point lead. Meder bulled his way into the back field and got his right hand on the kick.
” ‘The Pierogi Prince of Parma’ does it again,” Thomas said. “That man is awesome. He is one of my favorites. I think he is playing in the polka band here this weekend on Christmas Day, so if you guys get a chance, go out and watch him. He is the accordion player.”
Some of San Diego’s players were in disbelief after losing to the NFL’s only winless team.
“Every game counts the same to me,” said quarterback Philip Rivers, who passed for 322 yards and two touchdowns. “I know they had lost 14 games. I understand that they had lost a certain number by double digits. I also see the scoreboard and see them up in a lot of games. I see them tied, I see them down six. We knew we were playing an NFL team and they played better than us today.”
Browns quarterback Robert Griffin III sustained a concussion in the fourth quarter when he was sacked for the seventh time. He was replaced by rookie Cody Kessler.