Sunday, September 21, 2014

A serious failure to win

Over the years, the Browns have come up with many different and wonderfully creative ways to lose football games. You name it, the Browns most likely have done it.

You don’t rack up the National Football League’s worst overall record in the last 15 seasons without a wide variety of self-inflicted wounds.

Sunday’s 23-21 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in front of the home fans only added to the massive amount of frustration those fans have built up since 1999. It was just another case of the Browns turning a victory into yet another loss. By now, they are used to it.

You could almost see the loss coming. Justin Tucker’s third field goal of the game with no time left was almost anticlimactic as the Ravens remained composed down the stretch despite being down by one. The Browns, predictably, fell apart.

Whenever they needed a big play, especially in the fourth quarter, they failed. Missed opportunities R (imagine a reversed R) the Browns. Whenever the Ravens needed a big play, they nailed it.

With five minutes left in regulation and down a point, the Ravens needed a stop. They got it, forcing the Browns into their first three-and-out of the afternoon. But the Cleveland defense, which surrendered another 377 yards of offense, struck back and forced Baltimore coach John Harbaugh to make a tough decision.

Well, tough might not be the appropriate adjective here. After all, these were the Browns, a team he has lost to just once. Facing a fourth-and-long at his 35, Harbaugh chose to punt with a 2:19 left and the distinct possibility the Ravens might never see the ball again.

But these were the Browns, not the Pittsburgh Steelers or Cincinnati Bengals, teams that rarely blow games. Harbaugh just knew they would somehow screw up their next possession. He believed the Browns would dig deep into their well of misery and somehow mess up. And that’s exactly what they did.

After Travis Benjamin allowed Sam Koch’s punt to bounce to the Cleveland 7 (bad move), all the Cleveland offense needed was just one first down to win the game since the Ravens burned their last two timeouts during the possession. One stinking first down. Is that too much to ask for? With this team, that’s a rhetorical question.

Brian Hoyer, who was magnificent in the first three quarters (17-of-19 for 214 yards and a touchdown) failed to deliver when it mattered most, throwing behind Andrew Hawkins in first-down territory on third down. A second straight three-and-out and the Ravens, after Spencer Lanning’s mediocre punt, began their winning drive at midfield.

One big play. That’s all the Browns needed on either side of the ball. Just one big play and the game would have been over. All they received was failure after failure to come through in the clutch. That’s obviously what Harbaugh thought when he decided to punt.

Then it was the Cleveland defense’s turn. It was their turn to come up with the clutch play. An interception (they had one already). A fumble. A sack. Anything that would stanch the momentum.

It took only two plays against that porous defense to put the Ravens in position to win the game. Wide receiver Steve Smith got behind Joe Haden. Joe Flacco bought some time in the pocket and then hooked up with Smith on a 32-yard pass play.

Smith is the Ravens’ best receiver. How and why he was allowed to get so open between Haden and strong safety Donte Whitner is something the coaching staff will have to explain. It should never have happened. Four plays later, Tucker hit the game-winner.

Despite all this misfortune, the Browns still had every opportunity to win this game.

The Cleveland offense played so well in the first three quarters, it moved offensive tackle Joe Thomas to say after the game his team “could have had easily 40 points.” Coulda, woulda, didn’t.

Tashaun Gipson’s interception on the first series of the fourth quarter set up the Cleveland offense at the Baltimore 30-yard line. The offense proceeded to slam it in reverse. Three plays and minus-two yards later, Billy Cundiff’s 50-yard field-goal attempt caromed off the left upright and bounced the wrong way.

The very next Cleveland possession should have resulted in a 79-yard touchdown pass to rookie Taylor Gabriel that would have given the Browns a 28-17 lead with about eight minutes left. Shoulda, woulda, didn’t.

Hoyer hit a wide-open Gabriel around the Baltimore 25, but he misjudged the ball and had to jump to corral it at the last second, falling untouched to the ground. He got back up, but was chased down by Jimmy Smith and brought down at the 9. And that’s when Murphy’s Law returned.

Three straight negative plays later (reverse gear again), Cundiff could have given the Browns a four-point lead with a field goal, meaning the Ravens would have needed a touchdown to take the lead.

But Asa Jackson, the outside man on left side of the kick-block line, which was overloaded to the kicker’s right, burst free, brushed off a token slap to the chest by Cleveland’s Billy Winn and smothered the 36-yard attempt.

The missed opportunities just kept on coming.

It was at this point that the inevitable starting coming into focus. The Browns were doing everything to lose this game and the Ravens, understandably, were not going to stop them from doing so.

Along the way, the generous Cleveland defense made stars of Lorenzo Taliaferro and Kyle Juszczyk, a couple of unknowns who had never before this game touched a football in a regular-season game. They looked like seasoned pros.

Taliaferro was in the lineup only because the Ravens were short-handed at the running back position with the Ray Rice suspension and an injury to Bernard Pierce. The rookie looked like a veteran as he sliced the defense for 91 yards and a touchdown.

Juszcsyk, a Cleveland-area native who played his high school ball at Cloverleaf in Lodi, caught three passes for 54 yards, scored once and delivered numerous crunching blocks for Taliaferro and Justin Forsett as the sieve-like Browns run defense was shredded for another 160 yards.

As it turned out, it was just another losing day at the office for the Browns at the Factory of Sadness. This one will fester a little longer. The bye is next.

Depending on your perspective, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

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