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Cleveland fans regain hope

More than an hour after Sunday’s game, the parking lots outside Cleveland Browns Stadium were still full of partying tailgaters, and the few cars that did leave pulled away with their horns blaring.

For a change, the honking wasn’t in anger.

Cleveland won its first season opener since rejoining the league, a convincing 20-3 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, who were outplayed in every phase by a Browns team seeking redemption and respect.

Everything felt different on a sun-splashed afternoon along the shores of Lake Erie.

Jeff Garcia, the Browns’ new quarterback, scrambled, made big plays and even jumped into the Dawg Pound to celebrate a touchdown. Cleveland’s defense swarmed “like bees to honey” on Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, and 73,068 fans stood, barked and screamed like they once did for Jim Brown and Bernie Kosar.

It was one of the few times since their rebirth in 1999 it felt like the Browns were back — all the way back.

“It’s a great feeling,” said defensive tackle Orpheus Roye, one of the few players available in the locker room yesterday. “Hopefully, we can keep this going.”

Getting started had been Cleveland’s problem the previous five seasons. The Browns had begun each year since ’99 with a loss, all of them at home.

But feeding off the positive vibes created by a weekend-long tribute for the Browns’ 1964 NFL championship team, Cleveland played perhaps its most complete game since Butch Davis took over as coach in 2001.

“It was a double exclamation point at the end of a great weekend,” Davis said.

That’s a big improvement on the usual question marks.

Davis credited Cleveland’s flawless special teams, the Browns’ gang-tackling on Lewis and not turning the ball over against one of the NFL’s toughest defenses as the keys to the Browns’ victory.

Finally 1-0, the Browns are not starting a season in a hole.

“It’s a better way to set the tone than the alternative,” Davis said. “But it’s just one game.”

There were plenty of positive signs, though. Garcia’s debut may have been the most optimistic.

After a shaky start, the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback threw a 46-yard touchdown pass to Quincy Morgan in the third quarter before calling his own number on a bootleg and going 3 yards for the clinching TD late in the fourth.

Garcia’s scoring toss came on a play that looked doomed from the start.

He danced in the pocket looking for a receiver and, unable to find one, he pump-faked enough to get safety Ed Reed to bite and come up.

Garcia then floated the ball to a wide-open Morgan, who only had to haul it in and not trip over any blades of grass on his sprint to the end zone.

“His scrambling, staying alive in the pocket, that was a vintage veteran quarterback play,” Davis said. “He hung onto the ball, reloaded and found Quincy wide open.”

Lewis, on the other hand, was never alone.

The reigning league rushing champion, who ran for 500 yards in two games against Cleveland in 2003, was held to 57 on 20 carries.

Wherever Lewis went, orange helmets were there, too. Sometimes by the half dozen.

“Everybody to the ball, that was our motto all week,” Roye said.

The defense’s tenacious effort came a few days after end Kenard Lang, who had three sacks and forced a fumble, predicted Lewis would not be able to break through Cleveland’s defensive front four.

“That was a bold statement right there,” Roye said. “Hopefully, he won’t make no more predictions. But if he was that confident, we had the confidence.”

The Browns took the field more sure of themselves than at any time in recent memory. In addition to not being favored, Cleveland’s players had taken issue with the pregame buildup focusing solely on the Ravens.

But beginning with the pregame coin flip, the Browns showed they weren’t going to be intimidated by Ray Lewis, Deion Sanders or anyone else wearing purple and black.

Linebacker Andra Davis got into it with Ravens tackle Orlando Brown, who had to be pulled away from the exchange of handshakes between the teams’ captains.

“There was a lot of emotion at the start. Nobody was going to back down,” said Andra Davis, who joked about the topic of conversation. “We talked about the Presidential election. But we didn’t get far enough to find out who was voting for who.”

The Browns’ landslide win caused Garcia to throw an open-house party following the game. The gesture underlined his leadership and a new bond among Cleveland players.

Garcia now just needs to work on the guest list.

“I was mad. He didn’t invite the head coach,” Davis said.

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