Sunday, November 24, 2013

Yep, this party is over

With sincere apologies to Willie Nelson and the late Don Meredith, consider the following as the Browns’ obituary for the rest of this season.

“Turn out the lights, the party’s over; they say that all good things must end.” In the Browns’ case, substitute season for party and that about sums up where the rest of this season lies.

Nelson wrote the song and Meredith popularized it at the end of Monday Night Football games on ABC for many seasons. It also might as well be the Browns’ theme song for the rest of 2013.

The lights went out on the 2013 season for the Browns on the wings of a 27-11 drubbing by the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at the edifice once known as Cleveland Browns Stadium. Once again, the Steelers arrived ready to play. The Browns did not.

If anyone in Browns Nation believes there is still something to salvage this season, he or she is dreaming. Do not even think about using Browns and playoffs in the same sentence. That laughable thought is officially now known as an oxymoron.

The club will try to sell you on the notion that there is still a chance. Technically, that is correct. Realistically, though, that’s not even close. Certainly not after the way the team played against the Steelers. It was the men against the boys.

This one had so much on the line for the Browns. First of all, it was against their archrivals. If that wasn’t motivation enough to play well, then there’s no hope for this team. Second, even more important, a victory would have produced the first stepping stone toward relevance in the National Football League.

Entering next Sunday’s game at home against the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars with a 5-6 record and the distinct possibility of playing .500 football after a dozen games was a strange, but pleasant, thought throughout the week leading up to this game.

The Browns then proceeded to add another chapter to the Factory of Sadness saga and plunge it to depths that have been achieved in the past only by far lesser teams.

For a game with this much meaning, the Browns (with one notable exception) mailed it in.

Josh Gordon was the only Brown to show up, putting on a virtuoso performance that landed him in the team’s record book. The second-year wide receiver, who is too good to play with such a bad team, caught a record-tying 14 passes for a record-smashing 237 yards.

Growing up a Browns fan, coach Rob Chudzinski certainly knows the importance of any game against the Steelers. Apparently, the players never got the message as they prepared for the game this past week.

For whatever reason, this team was not ready to play a game of football Sunday. There is no excuse for the way they played. None whatsoever. Everyone in the organization is culpable. From Joe Banner on down, this was one game that had to be won.

There aren’t that many must-win games in a season for a team like the Browns. And this was their best effort? Instead, they came up with a game whose stench will linger for quite a while.

For the first time this season, the Browns got pushed around on both sides of the ball. The Steelers, who owned the ball for 33½ minutes, jumped all over them almost from the opening kickoff and did not let up.

It was almost as though they toyed with their AFC North patsies, improving Ben Roethlisberger’s record against them to a remarkable 16-1. The Pittsburgh quarterback sliced and diced the Cleveland secondary all afternoon.

When it came to the battle in the trenches, the Steelers won just about every one. The offensive line provided pristine protection for Roethlisberger, who was not sacked and wound up on his back just once. That same line had given up 36 sacks in 10 games before Sunday.

And the Pittsburgh defensive line, which had a measly 18 sacks in those 10 games, dropped Cleveland quarterbacks Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden five times, knocking Campbell out of the game twice, the second time permanently with a concussion in the third quarter.

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau showed his protégé Ray Horton, Cleveland’s defensive chief, how it should be done as his defense mauled the Browns all afternoon. It was an unfair fight.

Troy Polamalu, a shadow of his All-Pro self of several years ago, looked like a spry rookie, disrupting the Cleveland offense with glee. The 11-year veteran free safety seemed to be everywhere causing all kinds of trouble, including a pair of fumbles.

Cornerback William Gay joined the parade with a pick six (of Weeden) and a strip sack of Campbell that led to an easy Pittsburgh touchdown and the Cleveland quarterback’s departure for the rest of the game midway through the third quarter.

Gay clearly struck Campbell’s helmet with his hand as he swooped in untouched from the blind side, but referee Terry McAulay nor the umpire chose to yank a flag for roughing the quarterback. Look for Gay to be fined by the league and McAulay at least admonished.

But that’s not what lost this game. What won it was plays of aggression made by the Steelers. If it wasn’t Polamalu, Gay and the pass rush for the Steelers, it was Roethlisberger’s steely resolve and a determined offensive line.

If there was a play to be made, the Steelers made it. The Browns didn’t. Perfect example was Pittsburgh’s first touchdown of the afternoon.

A short Spencer Lanning punt was returned to the Cleveland 48-yard line by Antonio Brown with 3:17 left in the first half and a 3-3 game.  On the second play, Roethlisberger found Brown behind Joe Haden, who made the mistake of looking back as he ran with Brown. That fateful glance cost him and his team a touchdown.

On the next Cleveland series, Polamalu pried the football loose from Chris Ogbonnaya and recovered it near midfield. The Steelers turned it into a field goal. Just like that, the 3-3 tie turned into a 13-3 lead and the rout was on.

The Steelers, who lost their first four games of the season, have now won three in a row and reside at 5-6. The Browns, who began the season at 3-2, have dropped five of their last six games and taken up residence once again in a familiar place: The AFC North basement.

That victory over Baltimore a few weeks ago seems now like an aberration. It was thought at the time to be a sign that maybe, just maybe, a corner had been turned. Turned out that corner led back to a very familiar place.

To say the Browns are in a state of disarray right now would not be an overstatement. They are headed suspiciously in a direction with which Browns fans are all too accustomed.

What looked like a promising start this season has devolved into the realm of same old Browns. So much to look forward to; so little in return.

And to think there are still five games left on the schedule. The age of torture continues.

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