So close and yet . . .
The Browns actually played a very good football game Sunday in Kansas City. Too bad they didn’t start playing it until late in the second quarter.
If they had played the first 25 or so minutes the way they played the last 35 or so minutes, they might not have lost, 23-17, to the Chiefs, who extended their unbeaten streak to eight games.
As the game wound down, the Chiefs were hanging on, looking nothing like a team that has yet to taste defeat this season. The Browns were clearly the better team before self destructing midway through the final quarter.
Self-inflicted wounds are the bane of football coaches and serve as the difference, painfully so in this instance, between winning and losing. Good teams do not hurt themselves. That’s why they are good teams.
Bad teams, star-crossed teams and those that just can’t buy a break are the ones that usually lose games like this. Count the Browns as one of those teams as they drop to 3-5.
Teams like the Browns have the Davone Besses of the football world on their rosters. All Bess had to do was hold on to the football in two critical instances in the fourth quarter and the Browns just might have pulled off the upset.
Clutch players make the plays in question. Bess proved beyond a shadow of any doubt that he is not a clutch performer with a pair of hand wringing, forehead slapping, mind-numbing miscues.
The Browns started out the game on both sides of the ball as though they didn’t want to be on the same field as the Chiefs, who ran off to a 13-0 lead 20 minutes into the game and led, 20-7, with a minute left in the half.
After three straight three-and-outs to begin the game, offensive coordinator Norv Turner dipped into the trickeration bag and hauled out the old throwback to the quarterback bromide to kick-start the offense, Jason Campbell hooking up with Josh Gordon for a touchdown after a pitchback by Willis McGahee.
Right after the second K.C. touchdown, the Browns seemed to flip a switch and began playing as though they were actually interested. With about a minute left, they could have sat on the ball. Instead, they marched 54 yards to set up a Billy Cundiff field goal.
And then defensive coordinator Ray Horton who began turning up the heat midway through the second quarter, dialed up even more intensity on the Chiefs, who were held to only 68 (41 net) yards of total offense in the second half.
The Browns shut down the running game and threw up an exquisite and exotic array of defensive looks that absolutely befuddled Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, who was sacked six times. On a few plays, he threw the ball away disgustedly as the Browns were about to blow up the play.
Bolstered by solid tackling and a relentless quest to put Smith on the ground (the Browns’ pass rush looked more like the Chiefs’ vaunted pass rush), the defense gave the Cleveland offense its cue.
The Browns opened up the second half with an 80-yard scoring drive, Fozzy Whittaker gathering in Campbell’s pass in the flat and galloping in on a 17-yard circle route. The Cleveland defense then shut down the Chiefs offense in four straight series, limiting them to just 16 plays.
It reached a point where Kansas City had lost all its momentum by the time the fourth quarter rolled around.
And then along came Bess.
With the Browns clearly owning the momentum and not succumbing to the vaunted Kansas City defense, the Cleveland defense pinned the Chiefs near their goal line with seven minutes left in regulation, forcing a Dustin Colquitt punt.
Punting from his end zone, Colquitt lifted a high kick to the 50-yard line. Bess, subbing for Travis Benjamin on punt returns after the specialist was injured on a return late in the third quarter, was stationed 10 yards into Cleveland territory. He ran up and attempted to catch the ball in mid-step.
He reached for it, never secured it and the Chiefs recovered the muff. So instead of the Browns with the ball in Chiefs territory and the distinct possibility of no worse than a field goal and a tie game, K.C. retained the ball at its 47.
The emotional tide changed just like that when Bess, who had dropped a couple of earlier passes, couldn’t hold on to a simple punt. And it eventually got worse for the sixth-year receiver.
The defense again held the Chiefs, giving the ball back to the offense for one more try with four minutes left. Even though they had to start at their 16, there was still plenty of time for the Browns to get into position for at least a tying field goal.
Campbell delivered a clutch 11-yard pass to Jordan Cameron on a third-and-9, but a Joe Thomas daily double (holding penalty and false start) contributed to a fourth-and-7 situation at the 31. Time for a playmaker to step up.
Gordon, who had 123 yards and a TD on four catches, and Cameron, with 81 yards on four grabs, had to be the likely targets. Anyone but Bess, right?
Big problem. He was the only receiver who could get open and, like the veteran receiver he is, came back to the quarterback when he saw Campbell in trouble. He made himself available and slid to catch the ball in first-down territory. The ball was delivered low, but on target. And it slithered out of Bess’ grasp.
So with two minutes to go, the luckiest team in the National Football League at that very moment breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Did Bess lose this game? Not totally. He had plenty of help in the first 25 minutes.
This game, as it turned out, was lost when the defense pretty much allowed the Chiefs to do whatever they wanted for much of the first half. And it was lost when the Cleveland offense went three-and-out on its first three possessions and racked up a paltry 13 yards of total offense as K.C. raced out to the 13-0 lead.
Campbell, for the most part, had lots of time to throw all afternoon mainly because of his quick release. It kept him out of a lot of trouble and his pocket awareness enabled him to run for important yardage. He was sacked just once and avoided three others by scrambling for 17 yards.
Campbell, whose quarterbacking makes it easy to forget about Brandon Weeden in a hurry, threw for nearly 300 yards, no interceptions and the two scores after his slow start. He clearly demonstrated why Weeden should be tethered to the bench from now on.
So now that we’ve seen what a Ray Horton defense can do when unleashed and what the Cleveland offense can do under Campbell, the second half of the season just might be something toward which Browns fans can look forward.
If the Browns can come this close to knocking off the last unbeaten team in the NFL, there’s no telling just how much noise they can make in the second half.