Sunday, November 17, 2013

Big Mo slaps Browns around

It is truly incredible how quickly momentum can turn in a National Football League game.

Take, for example, what happened to the Browns in their 41-20 loss Sunday in Cincinnati. Playing their first meaningful game in nearly six years, they were cruising along with a stunning 13-0 lead over the Bengals late in the opening quarter.

Beat the Bengals and the notion that the Browns could start dreaming of the playoffs would begin. Everything was going their way at that point. Well, almost everything.

It very easily could have been – and should have been – a 21-0 lead late in the quarter had the Browns been more productive in the red zone, squandering two precious opportunities to score touchdowns.

The defense was playing well. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton was picked off twice by Joe Haden and the Bengals looked confused on both sides of the ball. A third straight Cincinnati loss began taking shape.

But bad play calling by Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner turned those opportunities into field goals instead of touchdowns and gave the Bengals the necessary breathing room to stick to their game plan.

The pass-happy Turner ran the ball just once on a first-and-goal at the Cincinnati 2 on the second series of the game. On the next series, after Haden made the first of his picks deep in Cincinnati territory, Turner plucked three straight passes out of his playbook. Six plays, five passes, two Billy Cundiff field goals.

The second Haden interception wound up as a pick six as he showed the Cleveland offense where the end zone was. Eleven minutes into the game and the sweet aroma of an upset began to waft around Paul Brown Stadium. It momentarily took the crowd out of the game.

While most Browns fans thoroughly enjoyed the scoring bonanza, the nagging feeling lingered among the more skeptical that those lost eight points might come to haunt them. If nothing else, the Bengals are good at coming from behind.

Putting them in a 21-0 hole is far more damaging than a 13-0 deficit. Two touchdowns create a lead. At 21-0, they create a one-possession deficit.

It was at that point of the game where the Browns began to get into the holiday spirit. That holiday of gift giving lurks just around the corner.

Just after the Browns’ defense had forced the Bengals’ third three-and-out to begin the game, the dam burst and the gift giving commenced.

It began quite innocently when Cincinnati linebacker James Harrison – yep, the former Pittsburgh Steeler who used to bedevil the Browns – picked off a Jason Campbell pass on a deflection deep in Cleveland territory and began knocking over Browns offensive linemen (Joe Thomas, Shawn Lauvao and Alex Mack) as if they were bowling pins on a 21-yard romp into  the end zone.

An illegal block penalty on the Bengals nullified the score, but Dalton connected with tight end Jermaine Gresham (more tight end troubles) two plays later on the first play of the second quarter and the rout was on.

What? How could there be a rout when the Browns led by six points? That’s where momentum enters the flow of the game.

On the next Cleveland series, Spencer Lanning’s punt was partially blocked and the Bengals needed just five plays to score and take the lead (instead of trailing, 21-14). Missed opportunities proved costly in a hurry.

A couple of series later, Lanning lined up again in punt formation at his 32-yard line and this time, the Bengals did not miss. Rookie reserve linebacker Jayson DeManche got all ball. Safety Tony Dye stumbled before grabbing the ball and scoring.

To recap: A pick, a couple of blocked punts, three touchdowns, a 21-13 lead and a boatload of momentum. The Cleveland defense, still playing well, had virtually shut down the Bengals’ offense and yet trailed by eight. And that wasn’t the end of it.

On the second play of the next series, a swing pass to Chris Ogbonnaya, Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict stripped the Cleveland running back of the ball, grabbed it and romped 13 yards into the end zone, then disappeared into the players’ runway. Two Cincinnati touchdowns in a minute and 50 seconds.

But wait, there’s more.

The Browns took over the ball for the third straight series. The drive resulted in another Lanning punt, this one successfully executed. So the Browns owned the ball for nearly seven and a half straight minutes as the second quarter drew to a conclusion and had nothing to show for it on offense, but gifted the Bengals with two touchdowns.

The only thing missing was the bow. That came with about 30 seconds left in the half when another Lanning punt was returned 27 yards to the Cleveland 32. Three plays later, Mike Nugent’s field goal swelled the Bengals’ second quarter point total to 31. Two turnovers and two blocked kicks turned into 28 of those points.

Turnovers and awful special teams play turned the afternoon ugly in a hurry. Thirty-one straight points in 15 minutes. That’s how quickly momentum can turn in an NFL game.

One look at the game statistics and you wonder how in the world the Bengals put up 41 points and won by 21. They racked up just 10 first downs (one by penalty), 118 yards passing and a meager 224 total net yards. They were 1-for-14 on third down. Pro Bowl wide receiver A. J. Green was held to just two catches for seven yards.

Campbell, on the other hand, couldn’t have spent a more frustrating afternoon. The cool, calm quarterback of the Kansas City and Baltimore games seemed rattled and unsure of himself. He looked confused and frustrated. Give the Bengals' defense credit, though.

It was as though they were willing to give him the short, harmless stuff. Of his 27 completions, 20 were to running backs and tight ends. Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer took away his long game.

On almost every dropback, the Cleveland quarterback looked everywhere before finally checking down to either a running back or tight end. Zimmer was determined not to let Campbell beat him deep.

A 74-yard scoring bomb to Josh Gordon, who beat Dre Kirkpatrick deep down the left sideline midway through the third quarter, was the only slipup in the Cincinnati secondary. But by then, it was nothing more than a meaningless stat for Gordon. He and his fellow wide receivers failed to get open all afternoon.

The height of the afternoon's frustration was reached on a 76-yard Cleveland drive in the fourth quarter that consumed 19 plays and took 5:09 off the clock. It produced zero points. All that work resulted in giving the ball back on downs at the Cincinnati 4. It was a microcosm of the kind of afternoon they least expected.

There is no question the better team won this one. The Browns' offense and special teams were the culprits this time, playing the worst 15 minutes of football imaginable. It cost them dearly.

Good teams take advantage of opportunities. That is exactly what the Bengals did Sunday. And while the scoreboard does not accurately reflect how close these two teams are in talent, the final score is still the barometer by which we judge teams.

It was an afternoon when the contenders turned back into the pretenders.

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