Sunday, December 2, 2012

Driving it home

It was the drive the Browns have been waiting for all season. The drive that eventually could define what this team is all about.

All season long, we have witnessed the Browns gagging away victories because of poor play in the fourth quarter. When big plays were needed, they went unfounded. On both sides of the ball.

But Sunday in Oakland, they took one rather prodigious step toward turning a corner that separates bad teams from average teams, average teams from good teams and good teams from great teams.

The ability to win games in the fourth quarter is an art that has escaped this team for way too long. Not on this Sunday, though.

Nursing a 13-10 lead but allowing the Raiders to inch their way back into the game on a 64-yard scoring play, the Browns were in a familiar spot after Sheldon Brown choked off an Oakland bid to take the lead with an interception midway through the fourth quarter.

The theft left the Browns pinned back at the six-yard line with 9:31 left in regulation. In the past, such a recipe meant only one thing. This was not going to end well.

A 12-game losing streak on the road was on the line for the Browns. Trips back home after games on the road have been quiet. Too quiet. Lots of thoughts on what could have been became commonplace. Those journeys back home became studies in introspection.

Now was the perfect opportunity for them to prove something to themselves. The emotional high they enjoyed after knocking off Pittsburgh a week ago was long gone. Time to end that nasty road streak. Time to muscle up and win this game.

And that’s exactly what they did, marching 94 drama-filled yards in 14 plays that consumed six minutes and four seconds, doubling the Raiders (20-10) and putting the game out of reach.

The Browns needed to choke off the Raiders’ momentum. They needed to prove to themselves they could take charge of a game when it was absolutely necessary to do so. They needed to feel good about themselves. Finally.

The game-sealing drive rendered meaningless a time-consuming, prevent-defense-causing, here-take-it touchdown by the Raiders that only made the final close.

“Probably a defining drive of the season,” said Brown, who played his strongest game of the season. “We had an opportunity to see the character of that offense.”

Not a defining drive. The defining drive.

We won’t know how defining until the season is completed, of course, but we should get a pretty good idea the next time the Browns are in a game-winning or game-icing situation in the next four Sundays.

What this one did was tell members of the offense, whose fourth-quarter struggles are heavily responsible for at least three losses, that maybe, just maybe, they have discovered the clue on how to win games – or at least put them away – down the stretch.

This drive also added another chapter in the Brandon Weeden book of growing up quickly as a National Football League quarterback. With their backs scraping their goal line and the Raiders owning the momentum battle, Weeden shrugged off some first-half problems and went to work.

The long drive was littered with dramatic plays, not the least of which was an 11-yard completion to Josh Gordon on a third-and-3 at the Oakland 13. Without it, the Browns would have had to punt.

Then Weeden, who threw for a season-high 364 yards, played pitch and catch with tight ends Jordan Cameron and Ben Watson that ate up 59 of the 94 yards. But it was a gutsy call by coach Pat Shurmur that sent a message to the offense that this fourth-quarter nonsense was going to stop.

Third and less than a yard at the Oakland 45 and the Raiders had just stuffed Weeden on a sneak. The Browns called their final timeout of the game. Why? Another dumb move by Shurmur? Not this time. This time, it was the correct move. This team needed a kick in the hind flanks. Shurmur provided it.

Same play, Weeden called in the huddle. This time, the Browns went with a quick count on fourth down and the offensive line, which allowed penetration on the previous play, blew the Oakland defensive line three yards off the ball. Message received. And carried out.

That hurdle cleared, the Browns ratcheted up the toughness. On the very next play, Weeden found Cameron along the sideline at the Oakland 40, but the young tight end broke a tackle and turned what would have been a short gainer into a 23-yard play down to the Raiders’ 19. At a time when the Browns needed a big play, Cameron came through.

And then the Browns got something they rarely get in the fourth quarter – a break. On a third-and-one at the Oakland 10, Raiders defensive tackle Desmond Bryant, who earlier partially blocked a Phil Dawson field-goal attempt, entered the neutral zone before the snap and gifted the Browns with a  first and goal at the five.

Two plays later, Trent Richardson barreled into the end zone for the 10-point lead and the Browns knew this one was over. They knew the monkey was off their backs. They knew this was another of those types of growing pains that feel good.

The good growing pains have been too infrequent the last several seasons. But this was one was clearly a confidence builder. And for at least the next few days, the Browns can rightfully believe this just might be the beginning of something good.

This is a very young team, one that has slowly, almost painfully, learned the hard way the difference between winning and losing. They’re beginning to see that hard work does have its rewards.

So now, one streak ends and another begins. When the Kansas City Chiefs arrive at Cleveland Browns Stadium next Sunday, the Browns, who matched last season’s victory total with the Oakland triumph, will try to make it three in a row.

Three victories in a row and the Cleveland Browns in the same sentence. Let that roll off your tongues. Sounds different, doesn’t it?

At one point, that would have been considered an oxymoron. Not anymore. 

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