Sunday, November 27, 2011

Finding ways to lose

There’s an axiom in sports that can be applied perfectly to what took place Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

Good teams always find ways to win games. And bad teams always find ways to lose games.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why the Cincinnati Bengals are 7-4 today and back in the playoff hunt. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why the Cleveland Browns are 4-7 today and thinking about next season.

In a game that clearly lived up to the cliché regarding snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the Browns’ miserable season took yet another leap backward as they allowed a 20-10 lead with 3:50 left in the third quarter to turn into a 23-20 loss.

The Bengals, outplayed for the better part of three quarters, didn’t get any better in the final stages. The Browns got worse.

To Browns fans used to this kind of loss, this was just another I-wonder-how-they-are-going-to-lose-this-game game that joined numerous other heartbreaking losses in the last dozen years.

It was no different Sunday. Only bad teams like the Browns manage to somehow, some way, fail to find the keys to victory. They have no clue as to how to wrap up a game.

And the fans, at least those who still care enough to care and hang around for more heartache, can almost sense it coming.

Like when Phil Dawson lined up for what would have been the go-ahead 55-yard field goal with 1:51 left in regulation. Money in the bank, right? After all, wasn’t Dawson perfect in seven field-goal attempts from at least 50 yards this season? Of course he was. He has been Mr. Automatic from long distance.

And didn’t he connect on a 54-yarder to carve out the 20-10 lead in the third quarter? Chalk up the three points and make the Bengals come back the hard way.

What could go wrong? Ryan Pontbriand can be counted on. He’s already had his one bad snap this season on the botched field-goal attempt that contributed to the loss to St Louis a couple of weeks ago at CBS.

And Brad Maynard might be one of the worst punters in the National Football League, but he’s one of the best holders on placements. So what could go wrong?

How about another Pontbriand dribble special, a grass cutter that barely made it back to Maynard, who tried hard to get it spotted for Dawson. But the timing was thrown off and Dawson hooked the kick badly left and well short.

Bad teams find ways to lose.

The Bengals, trying to stop a two-game losing streak, had climbed back into the game early in the fourth quarter with 10 points as the Cleveland defense experienced a temporary disintegration on consecutive series.

The Browns had pretty much shut down the Bengals’ big-play capabilities until they responded with a five-play, 75-yard scoring drive that quickly answered Dawson’s 54-yarder. The secondary was torched for passes of 35 yards to A. J. Green and a 22-yard scoring strike to Jermaine Gresham.

In just two and a half minutes, whatever momentum the Browns built had disappeared. All they needed was a stop at that point and the Bengals might never have regained any momentum.

Three plays later, Colt McCoy thinks he’s Brett Favre and tried to make a play few NFL quarterbacks can make. Running right, he heaved a pass off his back foot headed downfield in the general direction of Greg Little. Only one problem. It was 10 yards short.

Instead of just throwing the ball away, McCoy found Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson, who made the easiest pick of his career. It set up what would eventually be a game-tying field goal by Mike Nugent. Just like that, the Bengals were back in business.

Good teams find ways to win.

After the teams traded four three-and-outs, the Cleveland placekicking trio answered the nagging thought most fans have on their minds every time the Browns come close to winning games: Wonder what could go wrong now. Wonder how they’ll screw this one up.

And then they found out the ultimate price of rooting for a bad team.

The Bengals, who took over at their 45 when Dawson missed, faced a third-and-8 at their 47. Each team needed a big play. A third straight three-and-out maybe for the Browns?

Uh, no.

Green beat Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden, who overran the play, and was on the receiving end of a 51-yard pass and run that took the ball to the Browns 2 with less than a minute to play.

All Pat Shurmur could do, outside of calling three consecutive timeouts to conserve as much time as he could for a possible comeback, was shake his head in wonderment and silent disgust.

The Bengals plunged the dagger when Nugent kicked his final field goal with 38 seconds left.

Good teams find ways to win.

When Bengals coach Marvin Lewis approached Shurmur for the requisite post-game handshake, he appeared to say nothing. In fact, it looked as though he averted Shurmur’s look of shock.

He knew the Browns lost the game more than the Bengals won it. He knew he was extremely fortunate. He’d never tell that to his team, of course. But he also knew his team had clearly climbed to the next competitive rung with this victory.

The Browns, meanwhile, sink even deeper into the basement of the AFC North as Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati battle for post-season invitations.

But even in defeat, Shurmur can take solace knowing that although his team still struggles to find ways to win, it at least is making strides on the offensive side of the ball that were not there in the first eight games of the season.

The Browns sustained drives that consumed nine plays, 14 plays, eight plays and seven plays against the Bengals. Earlier this season, drives rarely exceeded five or six plays.

And they took advantage of a Jabaal Sheard strip sack of Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton in the final minute of the first half by scoring a touchdown on a McCoy-Little connection instead of another field goal by Dawson.

A step in the right direction to be sure. The next step is to play well enough to hold on to leads. That’s what good teams do. And right now, the Browns are not a good team.

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