Sunday, December 9, 2012

No fourth-quarter blues this time

Now be honest. The Browns’ 30-7 thrashing of the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday wasn’t the shocker of the year. The Chiefs are just not that good. OK, they stink.

The final margin, however, provided a much-needed pleasant relief. How long has it been since Browns fans could relax and honestly enjoy the proceedings with more than a quarter left? Too long is the correct answer.

Kinda nice, though, wasn’t it? And downright strange at the same time since Browns fans are used to tight games in the fourth quarter that generate everything from angina to apoplexy.

It isn’t often the Browns are involved in a laugher on the right side of the score. The mystery in this one was removed early, but only after Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles gave Cleveland fans a scare by ripping off an 80-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game.

Here we go again, some fans had to have said even before they could get comfortable. Twelve seconds into the game and the Browns were rocked back on their heels. There goes the two-game winning streak.

And when they couldn’t get into the end zone after reaching the Chiefs’ two-yard line late in the first quarter and had to settle for the first of Phil Dawson’s three field goals, a collective groan could be heard.

But the old saying held strong: It isn’t how you start a game; it’s how you finish. And with this young team gaining experience and slowly, but surely, learning how to close out games, that no longer is the case.

With 59 minutes plus left, this one was far from over. Little did fans know at the time that the Chiefs had shot their wad.  They sniffed Cleveland’s goal line just once after Charles’ spectacular opening shot and a second drive that ended with Ryan Succop’s short field-goal attempt blunted by the left upright.

After their strong start, the Chiefs’ next nine drives ended in seven punts, an interception and surrendering the ball on downs. They entered Cleveland territory only once in the second half, reaching the 16.

That’s how tough the Cleveland defense played all afternoon. After gaining 151 yards on their first two series, the Chiefs racked up just 159 more the rest of the game. Charles wound up with what proved to be 165 meaningless yards. A nice game and a crushing loss.

Cleveland’s offense once again left points on the field. The score could easily have reached 40 points. Brandon Weeden was at times brilliant, terrible and lucky. His rookie season continues to be fraught with inconsistency.

The final tally shows him with 17 completions in 30 attempts for 217 yards. It’s easy to be satisfied with his showing, especially after such a convincing victory. He  looked like a seasoned veteran on some of his throws to Josh Gordon and Greg Little, rapidly becoming his favorite targets.

But he missed wide-open receivers at times, maddeningly took three sacks by holding on to the ball too long and got real lucky when Chiefs defensive backs Eric Berry and Tysyn Hartman dropped easy interceptions. Had they been made, the Browns would have scored 14 fewer points.

Luck, it has been said, is the residue of hard work. And there is no question the Browns clearly outworked the Chiefs. There is also no question they have more overall talent.

In the National Football League, the great equalizer is the talent quotient. If your talent is better than their talent, chances that you’ll win rise dramatically. The Browns more than proved that Sunday against Kansas City.

The Chiefs can claim that Dwayne Bowe, their top receiver, missed most of the game with a rib injury and that Charles played most of the game with bruised ribs and was relatively ineffective.

But even they had to realize that even if Charles and Bowe had been anywhere near 100%, there’s still no way they would have come even close to the Browns, who spent almost the entire second half in Kansas City territory.

The Browns’ defense, growing in stature by the game, stuffed all but one of the Chiefs’ 11 third-down attempts. Kansas City quarterback Brady Quinn, coming off a club-record performance last week, looked more like the Brady Quinn who quarterbacked the Browns a few years ago.

The Browns stacked the box and forced Quinn to throw, but even then he did not oblige. He threw just 21 passes and completed 10 for a pedestrian 159 yards. And the improving Cleveland pass rush got to him for five sacks.

Not even the most frustrating part of the afternoon was going to stop the Browns on this day. Their inability to get into the end zone after rookie safety Tashaun Gipson picked off Quinn and returned it to the KC 13 on the Chiefs’ first possession of the second half proved disappointing.

An 11-yard pass to Gordon moved the ball to the two. On third and goal, the Browns had two touchdowns on consecutive plays nullified by penalties. Ben Watson was flagged for an illegal shift on his TD pass and Trent Richardson, who scored on a pair of one-yard runs, was denied a third TD when he was called for pass interference on his TD.

Throw in Travis Benjamin’s club-record 93-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter, kick starting the Cleveland offense, and you have the closest thing to a complete game by all three units.

With three hurdles left on the schedule, the Browns now have a legitimate shot at finishing with a respectable record. Unfortunately, those three hurdles are against the Washington Redskins in the home finale next Sunday and trips to Denver and Pittsburgh.

It’s safe to say the outcome of those games will go a long way in determining whether Pat Shurmur will be gainfully employed next season in Cleveland. The Browns win at least two of those games and it would be difficult to disinvite him back for the 2013 season.

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