Sunday, December 28, 2014

Play the whole game

The Browns, whose struggles lately have been rewarded with a nosedive to the bottom of the AFC North yet again, actually played a pretty good football game against the Ravens Sunday in Baltimore.

Considering how poorly they have played on both sides of the ball in the second half of the season, what they accomplished in the first 51-plus minutes against the Ravens bordered on the miraculous.

In no particular order, the defense made Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco look ordinary, made a sensational goal line stand after the Ravens had a first-and-goal at the Cleveland 2 in the first quarter, put the clamps on a very good Baltimore ground game and permitted just six points.

The offense, meanwhile, did something it has been unable to do the last two games. It stayed on the field for long periods of time, enabling the defense to catch its breath. Rookie quarterback Connor Shaw, despite pressure from the Ravens’ pass rush all afternoon, did not look out of place.

Performing much better than the much more heralded Johnny Manziel, the unsigned free agent showed an uncanny ability to extend plays with his escapability. Parlayed with the strong running of Terrance West, the Browns carved out a 10-3 lead after 45 minutes when  the rookie running back scored on a two-yard run to culminate a seven-play, 80-yard drive with 3:29 left in the third quarter.

The offense, which accumulated only 43 minutes of possession in the last two losses, logged slightly more than 26 minutes in the first three quarters against the Ravens. Things were looking very good. Even when Baltimore's Justin Tucker nailed his second field goal of the game with 10:37 left in regulation, there seemed to be no panic. An upset loomed.

And then the Browns played the rest of the fourth quarter. Because the rules book says a game must last at least four full quarters, they had to play the remaining 8:23 after the offense recorded its fourth three-and-out of the afternoon. Too bad.

Two plays after that three-and-out, the Ravens had a 13-10 lead on a pair of passes to Torrey Smith, who beat Joe Haden on the first one with a 53-yard grab and Buster Skrine on the second with a 16-yard scoring reception.

Just like that. Two plays, 69 yards and a very good defensive effort were flushed. And after the next three-and-out on the subsequent Cleveland possession, the Ravens struck again, this time on a six-play, 57-yard drive that took three minutes and 16 seconds off the clock.

Two touchdowns in less than five minutes and all that good work put forth in the first 51 or so minutes went to waste as the Ravens clinched a playoff spot with a 20-10 victory and extended the Browns’ losing streak to the final five games.

It was one of those situations, given the Browns’ predilection for losing games in the fourth quarter, where the average Browns fans wondered either out loud or to themselves, “Wonder how they're going to blow this one.”

Over the years since the return in 1999, the Browns have come up with some bizarre ways to snatch a loss from the jaws of victory. But it is extremely rare for the defense to go from so good to so beaten so quickly so late in a game.

The Ravens, clearly the better team even though they didn’t show it in the first three quarters, did something the Browns are incapable of doing. They have the ability to hang just close enough to take a game into the final quarter with a chance to win and then summon whatever it takes to do so.

They make plays. That, in this case, is what separated the two teams Sunday. Whenever they needed to make a play, the Browns failed.

When the Ravens suddenly had the lead on the two Smith catches, there was still 7:33 left in regulation. Plenty of time to retaliate, although the Baltimore defense seemed to pick it up several notches after taking the lead.

Shaw’s first-down pass to Travis Benjamin near midfield on the first play of the next possession was dropped. Two more incompletions and Spencer Lanning was punting for the seventh time just 33 seconds later.

For some reason, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan experienced brain cramps and dialed up three straight pass plays. There was still half a quarter to play and the Cleveland ground game had taken advantage of the absence of All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

West, who pounded out 94 of the Browns’ 109 yards on the ground against a stingy Ravens defense, was a spectator during that possession. No reason to abandon the ground game with only a three-point deficit. By doing so, Shanahan did the Ravens a favor.

By trying to pressure Shaw all afternoon, the Baltimore defense was more vulnerable to the run. When it came down to making smart coaching decisions from a strategic standpoint, Shanahan drew a blank.

What made the strategy even more puzzling at that point was the Browns’ receiving corps had not helped Shaw by holding on to some of his passes. By the middle of the fourth quarter, the only aspect of the Cleveland offense that worked was the running game.

Never mind the four short-range passes Shaw completed down the stretch that produced two first downs. By then, the Ravens were in prevent mode and more than willing to give up the short stuff.

In some ways, it was a fitting way to conclude the season. Remember when the Browns entered the second half of the season with a 5-3 record and made serious threats to own first place in the AFC North? After the Cincinnati surprise in game nine, they did.

The last seven games, though, produced just one victory, the 26-24 thriller at Atlanta when Billy Cundiff – remember him? – kicked the winning field goal on the last play of the game. That kick is what separates the Browns from a seven-game losing streak. Little did Browns fans realize that would be the club’s last taste of victory.

So a season that started out so promising has once again ended with such a deflated feeling for Browns Nation. Some fans will look on a 7-9 record as progress. Never mind that five of the victories were against teams with losing records. They won them, OK?

The more Browns realistic fans no doubt will use the final seven games as a barometer of where this team is headed. After all, isn’t it the goal of most coaches to improve as the season unfolds, especially in the second half?

Using that barometer, it looks like a busy offseason for General Manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine from a personnel standpoint. Many questions were answered. Based on what happened in the second half, there are too many broken pieces and parts to overlook.

The season-ending loss in Baltimore very well could serve as a microcosm of those problems. 

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