Sunday, December 8, 2013

Jinx? What jinx? Oh that jinx

Yes, Browns fans, your team does lead the National Football League in one category: Creative ways to lose football games.

Take Sunday’s 27-26 loss to the New England Patriots in Foxboro, Mass., for example.

The Browns owned a 26-14 lead with two minutes and 39 seconds left and looking every bit like the winning team.

Up to that point, they had actually outplayed the Patriots, making Tom Brady look, at times, more like Brandon Weeden than the future Hall of Fame quarterback he is certain to be when he decides to retire.

To Browns fans, though, two minutes and 39 seconds seem like an eternity even with a 12-point lead. That’s the nature of being a fan of this team.

Over the past 14 seasons, or since the resurrection in 1999, no lead is safe until the clock numbers are 0:00 and the scoreboard says the Browns have scored more points than the opposition.

Too many times, the impossible has become the possible and a victory has become a loss. Add Sunday’s loss to the Patriots as the latest iteration.

It never ceases to amaze how this franchise can turn winning into losing. It’s almost enough to cause even those who don’t believe in them to think this franchise is, indeed, jinxed. In this case, it was the Factory of Sadness, northeast sector.

All the Browns had to do was recover an onsides kick by New England after the Patriots cut the Cleveland lead to 26-21 with about a minute left in regulation when Julian Edelman scored on a two-yard scoring pass from Brady.

But rookie defensive back Jordan Poyer was flagged for hitting a defenseless receiver (Edelman), the penalty assessed on the ensuing kickoff. (I still don’t understand why the man who scored the touchdown was a defenseless receiver.) That meant the Pats kicked off from midfield instead of their 35.

They hadn’t had a successful onsides kick since a AFC wild-card game in January 1995 against, you guessed it, the Browns, coached then by Bill Belichick. The Browns won that game, 20-13, in Cleveland.

Sunday, the Cleveland hands team lined up at the 40-yard line for the obvious onsides effort. These are the guys deemed to have the best and surest hands on the team. But don’t forget, these are the Cleveland Browns.

Stephen Gostkowski’s onside effort seemed to travel toward the Cleveland defenders in slow motion. It headed right for Cleveland running back Fozzy Whittaker. All he had to do was fall on the ball at the Cleveland 40 and the game would have been over because the Patriots were out of timeouts.

Make a play. Validate and punctuate with an exclamation point the team’s performance against one of the NFL’s best teams on their home turf. This was a game the Browns absolutely deserved to win because they played well enough to win.

Instead, and this is where the jinx or curse or whatever you want to call it, kicked in. Whittaker got his hands on the ball, but the ball did want to cooperate and skidded away where New England cornerback Kyle Arrington recovered it with only 61 seconds left.

At that point, you just knew the Browns, who at one point had a 19-3 lead, were not going to win this one. Somehow, some way, the Patriots would find a way to win. Considering they won their last two games in comeback fashion, it was a virtual certainty.

Three plays and 30 seconds later, they took the lead. But it took a ticky-tacky pass interference call against Cleveland rookie cornerback Leon McFadden in the end zone while chasing Pats rookie wide receiver Josh Boyce to set up a one-yard scoring pass to Danny Amendola

The Browns, with no timeouts left, remarkably stormed back and got to the New England 40 with one second left, but Billy Cundiff’s 58-yard field-goal attempt fell a few yards shy of the crossbar.

It spoiled (no, make that ruined) a 391-yard passing, three-touchdown afternoon by Jason Campbell, a seven-catch, 151-yard performance by the amazing Josh Gordon, and a nine-catch, 121-yard effort by Jordan Cameron. Both men scored touchdowns, as did Gary Barnidge with a 40-yarder early in the second half.

The big difference is that Brady and the Patriots made the big plays when needed. In the fourth quarter alone, he completed 16 of 20 passes for 142 of his 418 yards.

It seemed as though he hiked his game to another level after tight end Rob Gronkowski, his best and most reliable receiver, left midway in the third quarter with what was believed to be a torn ACL following a clean tackle by Cleveland safety T. J. Ward.

Except for the ending, the game couldn’t have gone anymore Cleveland’s way. Just about everything went right, including a pair of successful replay challenges by coach Rob Chudzinski.

The only misstep was Chudzinski’s puzzling decision to go for two points instead of a Cundiff placement following Barnidge’s 40-yard scoring scamper that gave the Browns a 12-0 lead five minutes into the third quarter.

Conventional thinking would call for such a move, but not so relatively early in the game. Perhaps later when a two-point try would have been a no-brainer. The move appeared to show Chudzinski’s lack of faith in his offense.

The play chosen for the attempt was unwise (being kind here) and not because it failed. Chris Ogbonnaya on a draw play from the 3-yard line? Are you kidding me? There have got to be at least a dozen plays in the playbook for such an occasion and they chose that one? A running play for one of the worst run offenses in the NFL?

If that’s the best they can do, if that’s as creative as they can get, they might as well send out Cundiff every time the book calls for a pair of points.

The offensive line played well and protected Campbell, who was sacked only once. There is no question he was dialed in all afternoon on Cameron and Gordon, who scored on an 80-yarder late in the third quarter to give the Browns the 19-3 lead.

The defense, despite the 28 points the Patriots put up, played well and harassed Brady all afternoon, sacking him four times and forcing one intentional grounding penalty. A couple of other passes were close to being flagged for the same reason.

This was one game where Belichick, if he is honest with himself, has to admit his team was outplayed and was extremely fortunate to escape with the victory. The better team did not win.

The Browns beat the Patriots everywhere but on the scoreboard. And in the bottom line world in which we live, that is all that matters. Sure the Browns can hold their heads up high after this one, but at the same time wonder what they have to do to win.

The question, thus, is why haven’t they played this well on a consistent basis all season? Why did they lose last Sunday to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars at home? Why are they 4-9 entering the homestretch of the season?

If nothing else, they proved to themselves they can stay with a good team like New England. Now they have to go out and prove in the last three games that this one was not a fluke.

(Correcting information on New England's last successful onsides kick.)

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