The fourth quarter for the Browns this season has become the bane of their existence. Three games, three leads heading into the final quarter, three losses.
So when they marched into the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals, it was not surprising that more than just a few fans around Browns Nation wondered to themselves, "I wonder how they're going to blow this one." It's like getting hit over the head so many times that you expect it all the time.
This time, however, the Browns had a 23-13 lead, which is not precarious to most National Football League teams. But these are the Cleveland Browns, renowned for plumbing for losses when victory is in sight. It has become what might be considered a way of life for most Browns fans the last decade.
And it looked as though it was going to happen again after Carson Palmer, with help from a third-down personal foul call in the end zone on rookie Cleveland safety T.J. Ward, shoveled a touchdown pass to Brian Leonard that shaved the Cleveland lead to just a field goal with nearly 11 minutes left in regulation.
The Cleveland offense went into its fourth-quarter malaise right on cue while Palmer, who strafed the Browns secondary all afternoon with help from Terrell Owens, was beginning to look like an All-Pro against a tiring Cleveland defense.
It wouldn't be long before this one became loss number four. Fans had to be at least thinking, if not saying, "Here we go again." It was inevitable as the Bengals, after a pair of three-and-outs from the Browns, marched toward what would be no worse than a field goal.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had gambled all afternoon with blitzes from just about every conceivable angle. But Palmer remained clean most of the day, while Owens, an equal-opportunity abuser (i.e. Sheldon Brown, Eric Wright and Joe Haden), punished the Cleveland cornerbacks relentlessly.
It was just a matter of time as Palmer, who threw for nearly 375 yards, marched his team downfield with his no-huddle offense.
The something strange and truly unusual happened. And it turned the game around.
The Browns began catching some fourth-quarter breaks.
As the Bengals approached game-tying field-goal territory, Chad 85, who had been relatively quiet while Owens roamed free, was called for offensive pass interference on an incomplete third-down pass from the Cleveland 31.
Take the down, Eric Mangini, and make Cincinnati kicker Mike Nugent try a 49-yard goal. There are still five minutes left and your men blocked an earlier Nugent field goal. This one's a no-brainer.
Damn, he took the penalty. When is he ever going to learn. The way Palmer has been throwing and Owens getting open, this one's going to turn out disastrously.
But wait. Matt Roth breaks free on another of Ryan's blitzes and sacks Palmer, taking the Bengals out of FG range.
Great call, Mangini.
The breaks don't stop there, but not without a what-was-he-thinking moment.
With 4:41 left to play, the ball on their 11-yard line and the Bengals down to two timeouts, the Browns start their next possession with a pass. A pass!! An incomplete pass!! It stops the clock. Oh-oh. So this is how they're going to blow it. Dumb play calling.
At this point in the game, the clock is your friend. Do not stop it.
Then someone must have gotten through to offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Peyton Hillis is a weapon of mass destruction. Use it.
After an unusual holding call on a defensive lineman on second down, giving the Browns a fresh set of downs, it became the Peyton Hillis show and forced the Bengals to exhaust their timeouts. Left, right, left, right Hillis marched as the Cleveland offensive line came alive.
On the sidelines, Mangini ultimately smiled what looked a lot like a gas-pain smile when victory became evident.
No matter. A victory is a victory no matter how it's wrapped.