Winning the hard way
It didn’t have to be that difficult, that close, that harrowing.
It really didn’t.
How can 476 yards of offense, 313 passing yards, 162 yards on the ground and 29 first downs turn into a thriller? Not to mention a dropped pick 6 by safety Donte Whitner.
And yet, that’s exactly what happened to the Browns Sunday in Atlanta.
Try three Brian Hoyer interceptions on an afternoon when he played Good Brian and Bad Brian, an offense that did not take advantage of gifts from the opposition and some questionable coaching.
The Browns took what should have been – and could have been – a laugher and turned it into a thriller in a way only they could and had Browns Nation exhausted at the end.
The last-second 26-24 victory over the Falcons was a mute reflection of how many points the Cleveland offense left on the field. As many as 15 points were not placed on the scoreboard due to offensive ineptitude.
Converting a pair of turnovers in Atlanta territory (at the 23 and 40) early in the second quarter into field goals on consecutive series might have brought joy to the sycophants among Browns fans, but it allowed the Falcons to stay in the game.
Instead of bursting out to a 21-7 lead with some smart football and scoring touchdowns as an answer to the gifts from the Falcons, the Browns as much as said, “No thanks. We’ll just take the field goals. We’re in a holiday mood. One gift deserves another.“
The Falcons had taken a 7-0 lead in the opening quarter, driving 57 yards in 11 plays, Julio Jones scoring in a 24-yard strike from Matt Ryan. It would never have happened had Whitner not dropped a sure pick 6 on the fourth play of the drive.
So a 13-7 Cleveland lead turned into a 14-13 halftime deficit after the Falcons turned Hoyer’s first pick into a touchdown with less than a minute left in the half. It nearly became a larger lead when Devin Hester caught the Browns’ field goal team flat-footed on the last play of the half.
The National Football League’s all-time leading return specialist caught the short attempt six yards deep in the end zone, then threaded his way 75 yards to the Cleveland 31-yard line and almost scored before offensive lineman Joel Bitonio, of all people, finally ran him down.
Short fields are supposed to be igniters, emotional boosts for the offense provided by the defense. A Joe Haden interception of a Ryan pass produced the first Sunday; a strip sack of Ryan by Paul Kruger created the second.
And all the offense could muster was nine plays for 35 yards, 25 of them on Hoyer hookups with Josh Gordon and Miles Austin. It’s as though the Browns somehow dial up the wrong plays when they get the ball in plus territory.
It’s nice that Billy Cundiff kicked four field goals, including the game winner with no time left, but good teams convert turnovers in opposition territory into something more than three points. In that respect, the Browns are woefully weak.
Even with the return of Gordon, who put on a virtuoso performance with eight receptions (in 16 targets) for 125 yards despite the inconsistency of his quarterback, the Cleveland attack has made visiting the red zone an adventure this season. Actually, more of a nightmare.
On at least three occasions Sunday, Hoyer missed a wide-open Gordon, who showed no signs whatsoever of not playing football for the last three months. He was crisp with his route running, a monster after catching the ball and even chipped in some fine blocking.
As for Hoyer, who threw 17 incompletions in 40 attempts, you never knew which quarterback would show up from possession to possession. He was that inconsistent.
Bad Brian showed up in the fourth quarter shortly after the Browns controlled the third quarter and took a 23-14 lead on a 26-yard touchdown run by Isaiah Crowell, who broke three arm tackles on his way to his second score of the afternoon.
The Falcons, who ran only nine plays in the third quarter, cobbled together a 14-play, 80-yard scoring drive that took nearly six minutes of the clock and cut the Cleveland lead to two with 9:31 left in the fourth quarter.
It looked as though the Browns were going to retaliate with Good Brian leading a well-balanced seven-play 74-yard drive that brought about a first-and-goal at the Atlanta 6. Surely, they couldn’t mess this one up. Or could they?
First and goal at the 6 with Crowell running extremely well and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan calls a pass? A pass!?
Hoyer tried lofting a pass to Gordon near the end line. Too far for the tall wide receiver, but not too far for Atlanta cornerback Desmond Trufant, who picked if off. Bad Brian.
So instead of taking a nine-point lead again, the Falcons took over. Their joy was momentary as the Cleveland defense forced a punt with 3:37 left in regulation. But fear not. Hoyer wasn’t through.
On the next Cleveland possession, Hoyer overthrew an open Gordon once again on third down and safety Dezmen Southward picked it off at his 45-yard line with 2:43 left to complete Hoyer’s interception fest. Bad, bad Brian. Very bad Brian. Awful Brian.
Browns coach Mike Pettine, perhaps expecting the Falcons to play it conservatively and get into position for a potential game-winning field goal, chose to conserve his three timeouts. The Falcons complied and with 44 seconds left, Matt Bryant nailed a 53-yard field goal for the 24-23 lead.
As it turned out, Pettine’s move paid off, but only because Good Brian decided to come out of the shadows.
Following an incompletion to Gordon, he fired consecutive strikes to Miles Austin (11 yards), Gordon (24 yards), Gary Barnidge (15 yards) and Austin again (11 yards). Four straight completions for 61 yards in 30 seconds.
Good Brian. Very good Brian. Great Brian. Where was this guy earlier?
Browns Nation, most of whom had given up when Bryant nailed his 53-yarder, perked up with each Hoyer completion to the realization that, hey, the Browns could actually win this game.
And when Cundiff sent his 37-yard field goal squarely through the uprights with no time left, fans realized their Browns, who have lost just once in seven Atlanta visits, had won seven games in a season for the first time since 2007.
The victory, achieved when it looked as though they were going to blow yet another late lead in an effort to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, was a study in frustration.
It didn’t have to be this way. It really didn’t.