Sunday, September 26, 2010

The thinnest line

There is such a fine line between winning and losing, it takes extraordinary scrutiny to detect it. Such is not the case with the Cleveland Browns. Sunday's 24-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens is ample proof.

The Browns, for the greater part of the game, played well enough to win. Their offense, while not razor sharp, executed all afternoon without turning the ball over. That, in itself, is a victory with this team.

Peyton Hills, with his throwback running style, is becoming the second-most well-known NFL player named Peyton after a certain Indianapolis Colts quarterback, giving the Browns a weapon on the ground. His no-nonsense, here-I-come-try-to-stop-me style of running is reminiscent of former Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott, who took pleasure in gaining yards and hurting people.

The vaunted Baltimore defense, which prides itself on stopping the run, had no answer for the powerful and determined Hillis, who pounded out 144 yards and a touchdown. Many of those yards were of the down-and-drty variety where he merely stuck his nose in a tiny hole and gouged out extra yardage. Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis was a virtual non-factor in this one as the Cleveland offensive line played very well.

The defense, with one notable exception, played well enough to win. That exception, of course, was when Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco decided to throw the football toward Anquan Boldin when his club was within striking distance of the Cleveland goal line. It was most unfortunate the Browns assigned Eric Wright to stop Boldin. He didn't stand a chance.

Boldin made four trips into the Cleveland end zone and came away with the ball on three of them, making Wright look more like a college freshman making his first start rather than a veteran in his fourth National Football League season as the Browns tumbled to 0-3.

Wright, who has been around long enough to know, seemed to bite on Boldin's first move on all three TD receptions and each time, it was the veteran wide receiver's second move that allowed him to achieve the separation needed for an easy catch.

But that fine line between winning and losing didn't rear its ugly little head until the latter stages of the game unless you factor rookie safety T. J. Ward's drop of a sure pick 6 on the second play of the game into the equation. Ward makes that play and the Browns, at least in theory, win the game.

Back to the final stages, when the difference between winning and losing takes shape. All it took was three mistakes by the Browns to stick this one in the wrong column.

No. 1: What in the world possessed offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to call a counter play from the Cleveland 20 halfway through the fourth quarter shortly after the Ravens had taken a 21-17 lead? The Browns hand't run that play at all previously and the Ravens hadn't stopped the dive play all day long. Hillis was running well. Seneca Wallace's short pitch to an unsuspecting Hillis winds up back on the Cleveland 3 and short-circuits any possibility of a successful drive. Nail #1.

No. 2: Next series, third and 2 at the Cleveland 28 with about four minutes left and Hillis showing no signs of tiring or slowing down. The Baltimore defense is tiring, so why not another dive play by Hillis? Daboll thinks differently and calls for a long pass to Joshua Cribbs. It sails out of bounds. Drive over. Nail #2.

No. 3: Subsequent series, the Ravens have a third and 4 at their 34-yard line with 1:55 left in the game and clearly playing defensive football. The Browns squeeze the line of scrimmage, but Matt Roth can't help himself and commits a neutral-zone infraction. The Browns, out of timeouts, never get the ball back. Nail #3.

The little things often times make the biggest difference between winning and losing. Some teams just can't help themselves. The Browns time and again fall into that category. Thus their place among the bottom feeders.

However, despite the disappointing way they lost this one, there is no question the Browns played their best overall game of the season against the Ravens. And if they play the same way next Sunday at home against Cincinnati, the Bengals will be in for a long afternoon.

Their overall effort cannot be faulted. A lot of pundits, including yours truly, believed this would be a blowout. A Baltimore blowout. All signs pointed toward it. Home opener for the Ravens, Flacco usually plays well against the Browns and the Ravens have a strong edge in the talent department.

It's only one game, of course, but the Browns raised their competitive level a couple of notches even though they lost. The Ravens knew they were in a ball game and have to realize how fortunate they were to win.

The big question is whether the Browns can sustain their effort more than one game.

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