CLEVELAND — This was the way Cecil Shorts always imagined it would happen: game on the line, ball in the air, his chance to the hero.
The Jacksonville receiver replayed it in his mind countless times.
On Sunday, all of it came true. And, it happened in the best place possible — his hometown.
A Cleveland kid who grew up cheering for the Browns, Shorts caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Chad Henne with 40 seconds left, rallying the rejuvenated Jaguars to a 32-28 win.
On third and 9, Henne lofted a perfect pass to the left corner for Shorts, who had beaten Browns star cornerback Joe Haden. Shorts got both feet down in the end zone before tumbling out of bounds and celebrating with his teammates.
It was an unforgettable moment for Shorts, who earlier this week said ‘‘I'm all Cleveland’’ and talked about the excitement of returning to play in front of family and friends.
‘‘For that play to happen in this game, in that situation, and the hometown,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a dream come true.’’
After the Jaguars (3-9) gave up Brandon Weeden’s 95-yard touchdown pass to Josh Gordon and fell behind, 28-25, Henne drove them 80 yards in nine plays for the winning TD as Jacksonville continued its stunning turnaround after losing its first eight games, all by at least 10 points.
The Jaguars are 3-1 since their bye with all three victories on the road.
‘‘We’re building confidence and we’re getting better each and every day,’’ Henne said. ‘‘And these wins and on the road, playing in a hostile environment, the guys are starting to feel it a little bit.’’
For the Browns (4-8), their sixth loss in seven games stung deeply.
Three weeks ago, there was actually playoff talk in Cleveland. There’s none now.
Of all the losses, this one hit Haden hardest. His voice cracked as his emotions alternated between disgust and disbelief.
‘‘I don’t know, man,’’ Haden said, trying to figure what has happened to a promising season. ‘‘I don’t know. We can’t stand losing, it hurts. I go out there and put my heart out there every time. Every time. And we end up coming up short.”
Haden, who has had a Pro Bowl-caliber season, took responsibility for the winning touchdown.
‘‘It was my fault,’’ Haden said. ‘‘He ran a good route, a good play. Don’t take anything from our D, we’re out there every time grinding, fighting. This hurts. Every time we start losing, we’re tired of it and there’s nothing we can say.’’
Three weeks ago, the Browns seemed on the verge of finally turning the corner. At 4-5, they were in the playoff chase. But losses to Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and now Jacksonville have not only dropped them from contention, but the Browns are staring at another likely double-digit loss season.
‘‘I'm very disappointed,’’ said safety T.J. Ward. ‘‘We've got to learn how to finish.’’
Before Shorts’s catch, it appeared as if Weeden would shake off a mixed performance during which he threw three touchdown passes, was picked off twice just before halftime, fumbled, and had to kick a high snap out of the end zone for a safety.
Weeden connected with Gordon on the stunning 95-yarder with 3:55 left only to have Cleveland’s defense allow Henne to drive the length of the field. Jacksonville stopped Cleveland’s final chance by batting down a desperation pass by Weeden into the end zone.
Josh Scobee kicked three field goals for the Jaguars.
Gordon finished with 10 catches for a team-record 261 yards. He’s the first player in NFL history to have consecutive 200-yard games. He had 237 in a loss last week against Pittsburgh. Gordon has 1,249 yards receiving this season despite missing two games with a drug suspension; he needs 41 yards to break Braylon Edwards’s franchise record for a season, set in 2007.
Trailing, 21-20, and their offense doing nothing, the Jaguars took the lead when Browns center Alex Mack snapped the ball over Weeden’s head into the end zone and the quarterback alertly booted it out of bounds.
‘‘One hundred percent my fault,’’ Mack said.
Weeden was only back in the starting lineup because Jason Campbell has a concussion. But after finishing 24 of 40 for 370 yards, he was diagnosed with a concussion. Because of the head injury, Weeden was kept from speaking with reporters. If he and Campbell can’t play next week, Alex Tanney, signed off Dallas’s practice squad, will start against the Patriots next Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Henne went 22 of 40 for 195 yards and two TDs and Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew ran for 77 yards and threw an 8-yard TD pass to Marcedes Lewis.
Before catching his game-winner, Shorts, who had six catches for 64 yards, dropped a few throws. However, Henne told him to be ready and the former Division 3 star from Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, came through.
‘‘Chad came to me, ‘Hey, I'm coming back to you,’ ’’ Shorts said. ‘‘When the game’s on the line, you want the ball. And that’s just the bottom line.’’
It was up to Cleveland’s defense to protect the lead, but the Browns’ best unit all season couldn’t get the job done.
‘‘That’s on the entire defense,’’ linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said, taking some of the heat off Haden. ‘‘That’s not on one man and it would be a crime to put it on one man. It’s 11 guys out there each and every snap. That play was on our entire defense.’’
Jackson believes the Browns are close. There’s plenty of talent, but the team hasn’t figured out how to win.
‘‘I wish I had a magic wand,’’ he said. ‘‘You can look back and say what-if or what we could have done differently. We feel like we’re right there. That’s why guys are disappointed. We’re not finishing games. That’s the frustrating part.’’