Sunday, October 5, 2014

A most improbable victory

The inevitability of losing has winked so many times at the Browns since 1999, it has become almost a foregone conclusion they would do exactly that on any given Sunday.

The number of times they have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory staggers the mind. Murphy’s Law has hovered over this franchise for so long, losing has become a way of life.

So when the Tennessee Titans scored touchdowns on four straight possessions against the Browns Sunday to take a 28-3 lead with 2:44 left in the first half, the inevitable fell right into place.

But then something, or someone, intervened and the inevitable turned slowly, but ever so surely, into the improbable with a series of events only Browns fans can relate to. Only this time, fans of the Titans played the part of Browns fans.

The final score of Cleveland 29, Tennessee 28 does not tell the story. The path to that score is so improbable and hard to believe, no respectful Browns fan would believe it. Too much losing is ingrained in their DNA.

The stunning victory is the largest comeback by a road team in National Football League history.

It involved a muffed punt recovered by the Titans that wasn’t a muffed punt; an intercepted pass by Tennessee that wasn’t an intercepted pass; a Titans first down that wasn’t a first down; and a Cleveland rarity, a blocked punt in the end zone that became a safety.

In the first half, the Browns looked liked a team just learning how to play in the NFL. Their seven-game losing streak on the road was a certainty to become an eight-game skid.

One would have thought the bye week they were coming off of would have rejuvenated them. Instead, they sleepwalked through most of the first 30 minutes while the Titans treated them like a bad college team.

The offense couldn’t get started against an aggressive Tennessee defense and the Cleveland defense up front was bullied. The pass rush was virtually non-existent and when it got close to quarterback Jake Locker, he always managed to escape and make big plays.

The tackling was, at best, amateurish. And the penalties? Six of them for 69 yards, most coming at inappropriate times. Johnson Bademosi, for example, was flagged twice for holding on kick returns, pinning the start of a drive deep in Cleveland territory.

Nothing seemed to go Cleveland’s way. Not even after Charlie Whitehurst replaced Locker, who left with a thumb injury on his throwing hand late in the first half and did not return. The very ordinary Whitehurst threw a couple of touchdown passes, including a 75-yard bomb to Justin Hunter past a badly beaten Buster Skrine with 2:44 left.

The 28 points were almost as many (34) as the Titans had scored in previous three games. Titans fans could hardly believe their eyes nor contain their glee. But then with absolutely no warning, strange events began taking place and none of them favored the home team.

It started innocently when the Browns’ offense suddenly woke up on their last possession of the first half and drove 90 yards in nine plays, tight end Jim Dray hauling in a 1-yard scoring pass from Brian Hoyer with 12 seconds left.

Optimists at that time probably thought if the Browns could overcome a 27-3 halftime deficit in the season opener against the Steelers in Pittsburgh before losing on the final play, why not against the Titans?

Things turned wonderfully strange for the Browns and brutally strange for the Titans in the second half, especially the final 15 minutes.

It started when Titans rookie safety Marquest Huff recovered a muffed punt by the Browns’ Travis Benjamin at the Cleveland 35 with 1:36 left in the third quarter with the Browns trailing, 28-13. A flag on the play. Browns fans moaned. But not for long.

Officials ruled Huff had stepped out of bounds on punt coverage and did not reestablish on the field quickly enough. That’s unsportsmanlike conduct, a 15-yard penalty and a re-kick. A break for the Browns. But they squandered it after failing to score after driving to the Tennessee 4.

On the subsequent Titans possession, special teams standout Tank Carder blocked a Brett Kern punt out of the end zone for a safety, a rare big play from special teams and what turned out to be a most valuable two points.

But the best was yet to come.

It arrived on the next Cleveland possession after Titans cornerback Jason McCourty picked off Hoyer at the Tennessee 40 and returned it to the Cleveland 1. But hold on. Another flag. Cue Titan fans moaning this time.

Tennessee cornerback Brandon Harris was nailed for illegal contact, wiping out the interception. Ben Tate, running hard and effectively all afternoon, gouged out eight yards and Hoyer then performed something on third-and-1 that is rarely seen in Cleveland: a quarterback sneak. It gained two yards.

Hoyer culminated the 67-yard drive with a 17-yard strike to Benjamin in the end zone and the Browns, dead and almost buried late in the first half, improbably were within six points with 6:49 left in regulation.

By this time, the Cleveland defense decided to arrive on the scene and started putting pressure on Whitehurst and making big plays, racking up consecutive three-and-outs.

They got the ball back for the offense, but Hoyer committed the first Cleveland turnover of the season when Michael Griffin picked off his deep pass for Andrew Hawkins at the Tennessee 22. It was as good as a Spencer Lanning punt with 4:55 left.

The Titans converted one third down as they bled the clock. On the second, Whitehurst completed a pass to tight end Delanie Walker, who stepped out of bounds near the 42 with 3:12 left. The official ruled it a first down, although replay showed Walker stepped out a half yard shy of the first-down chains.

Mike Pettine demurred with the ruling and tossed the red challenge flag. He had nothing to lose. If he lost, the Titans have a fresh set of downs and time on their side. Why not give it a shot?

The replay official in New York concurred with Pettine and the ball was marked 18 inches from a first down. Instead of punting and pinning the Browns deep in their own territory, Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt decided to gamble. Browns fans with weak hearts reached for the nitro tablets.

Whitehurst’s sneak was rejected forcefully by at least a half dozen Cleveland defenders led by Donte Whitner and Jabaal Sheard. He didn’t gain an inch. Might have lost a few. Whisenhunt, also figuring he had nothing to lose, challenged the spot. And lost. He also lost a valuable timeout. Should have punted.

The Browns, now 2-2, took over at the 42 and reached the end zone in just four plays, Benjamin gathering in his second TD catch of the afternoon in the back of the end zone from six yards out with 69 seconds left. Billy Cundiff’s extra point untied it.

Still plenty of time left. But with only one timeout left, about 50 yards from field-goal territory and Locker watching hopelessly from the sideline in street clothes, the Browns forced everything to the middle of the field and the Titans ran out of time.

For once, the Browns and improbability danced with inevitability of losing merely a spectator. It was a long time coming, and it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it gives rise to the notion that something special just might be on the horizon with three of the next four games at home.

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