TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers like to say this season — maybe even the future of the franchise — is all about Josh Freeman.
The second-year quarterback returned from a three-week layoff because of a broken thumb on his throwing hand and tossed a pair of touchdown passes Sunday to help the Bucs overcome an 11-point deficit and beat the Cleveland Browns 17-14.
Freeman threw a 3-yard TD pass to Mike Williams late in the first half. The 6-foot-6, 248-pound quarterback kept the go-ahead drive alive with a key third-down completion, then found Micheal Spurlock in the end zone for a 33-yard score that put Tampa Bay ahead 17-14 with just under seven minutes to go.
Jake Delhomme guided Cleveland to a 14-3 lead before things unraveled for the Browns, who have not begun a season with a win since 2004 and fell to 1-11 in openers since the club returned as an expansion franchise in 1999.
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Seemingly in control and hoping to build onto the lead before halftime, Delhomme threw an ill-advised, sidearm pass that Ronde Barber intercepted and returned 65 yards before running out of gas and being pushed out at the Browns 3.
Freeman threw his first TD pass on the next play.
The Browns weren’t the same after that.
Delhomme, who threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Massaquoi for an early 7-0 lead, put together one promising drive after halftime. But the third-quarter march ended when Peyton Hillis, whose 10-yard TD burst had put the Browns up 14-3, fumbled at the Bucs 14.
Delhomme finished 20 of 37 for 227 yards and two interceptions in his Browns debut.
Bucs tight end Kellen Winslow had four catches for 32 yards, but was not a big factor in his first game against his former team.
After saying last week that Cleveland was just “another team” and that the game held no special meaning to him, Winslow came out of the tunnel during pregame introductions carrying a Bucs flag and ran over to the opposing sideline to wave it in front of the Browns.
Winslow spent five sometimes tumultuous seasons with the Browns before being traded to the Bucs in 2009.
There was no visible reaction from the Browns, who were shielded from Winslow by a group of volunteers who were on the field to unfold a large American flag for the national anthem.
Freeman completed 17 of 28 passes for 182 yards and was intercepted once after missing the final two weeks of the preseason after breaking a bone in the tip of his right thumb. He returned to practice last Tuesday and did not appear to be hindered gripping or throwing the ball.
Nevertheless, the Bucs didn’t have a lot of success moving the ball in the opening half. A 16-yard pass interference penalty and Freeman’s 33-yard scramble to the Cleveland 30 set up Connor Barth’s 49-yard field goal, and Barber’s long interception return enabled Tampa Bay to keep it close despite being outgained 202 yards to 113 in the first two quarters.
The Browns were last in the NFL in offense last season, but look like an entirely different team with the 35-year-old Delhomme running the attack after playing his way out of a job with Carolina last year.
Cleveland started 1-11 a year ago, but won the last four games of the season to help coach Eric Mangini keep his job.