Sunday, October 18, 2015

The one that got away

In a 16-game season in the National Football League, there are only a handful of games a team can look back on and say, “We deserved to win that game.”

Take, for example, the Browns’ unfortunate 26-23 overtime loss Sunday to the Denver Broncos in front of the home folks, whose emotions were toyed with all afternoon.

When Denver placekicker Brandon McManus connected on 34-yard-field goal – his fourth of the afternoon – that gently kissed the left upright before sneaking through with 4:56 left in the extra session, it served as a microcosm for how the season has gone for the fortunate-to-be -unbeaten Broncos.

It was also clearly an emotional wringer afternoon for Browns fans, who saw their team take their only lead of the game at 20-16 on a Karlos Dansby pick 6 midway through the fourth quarter.

Considering how poorly the Denver offense was playing, especially in the red zone, an upset of major proportions loomed as the unbeaten Broncos time and again failed to capitalize when reaching scoring territory.

And then without warning, just like that, the Broncos turned the four-point deficit into a three-point lead a mere 10 seconds after the Dansby pick when quarterback Peyton Manning hooked up with Emmanuel Sanders on a 75-yard scoring strike. It was the Broncos’ only offensive touchdown of the game.

Sudden joy became even more sudden despair for Browns fans. All that work to take the lead went poof. Almost as quickly as a snap of the fingers.

It was the first touchdown pass in more than eight quarters for Manning, who struggled all afternoon with his throws despite throwing for 290 yards. If he wasn’t uncharacteristically missing wide-open receivers, he was victimized by at least four drops as he resorted to the short and mid-range passing game.

And yet, the Browns had numerous opportunities to win this one, but misfired time and again on offense when presented with solid field position. A portent of things to come arrived early.

Like when Dansby picked off Manning on the first Denver drive of the game. Taking over at the Broncos’ 49, the Browns gained only 17 yards before turning the ball over on downs.

Like when the Browns began at the Denver 48 late in the third quarter following a 20-yard punt return by Travis Benjamin and quarterback Josh McCown was strip sacked two plays later by linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who came clean from the left side. That led to one of McManus’ field goals.

Like when a drive started at the Cleveland 40 late in the fourth quarter, stalled at the Denver 8 and Browns kicker Travis Coons was called on to tie the game at 23-23.

The Browns started eight of their 16 drives (not counting the short one at the end of the first half) from at least their 34-yard line and translated them into only 10 points. Two drives turned into a three-and-outs, another turned into the strip sack and an intercepted pass blunted a third.

Like when Browns linebacker Barkevious Mingo made a rare play, using his height to pick off a Manning pass on the first Denver series of overtime. The Browns started at the Denver 39 with Coons warming up on the sideline. The fans were equally stunned and delirious.

Sweet victory in this one was oh so close. Beating the Broncos, who have brought a major portion of sorrow to Browns Nation over the years, was just a few precious yards away for Coons to wrap up everything and send them home happy, if not delirious. That close to ending a Denver 10-game winning streak over Cleveland.

And then McCown, who blows hot and cold so much you begin to realize why he is nothing more than a journeyman quarterback, went chilly in a hurry. Running back Robert Turbin, making his season debut, turned a pitch into a three-yard loss around left end on the first play.

(Why the Browns even try running the flanks is puzzling because they don’t have an offensive line talented enough to pick up meaningful yards on the edges. Strange play calling.)

Then it was backward march even more when McCown was sacked on consecutive plays, losing 10 yards in the process. So first and 10 at the Denver 39 wound up as a punting situation for Andy Lee on fourth and 28 at the Cleveland 43.

Dan Fouts, commenting on the game for CBS-TV, couldn’t believe his eyes. “It was there for the taking for the Browns,” he said, no doubt shaking his head at the same time. It surely was there. And what happened is one of the many reasons the Browns are 2-4 this season.

They needed to make just one play. One pass completion; one big run; one big play. Is that asking too much? Apparently it is. It never came. It’s the great separator between an average team and one that almost consistently plays below average. Color the Browns in the last category.

Lee punted to Denver 12, where Jordan Norwood nearly fumbled it away. And then the Cleveland defense, stout all afternoon in the red zone and on third down but nowhere else, looked gassed as the Broncos strong-armed their way down the field, converting two big third downs along the way. Entering that series, the Broncos were just two-of-16 on third down.

Ronnie Hillman, who ran for 111 of Denver’s 152 yards, and C. J. Anderson carried the ball eight times for 30 yards during the 13-play drive with Manning mixing in passes to tight end Owen Daniels and Demaryius Thomas, masterfully engineering the winning drive 72 yards to remain unbeaten against the Browns lifetime.

The game nearly didn’t make it to overtime when Sanders made what appeared to be a falling 23-yard catch at the Cleveland 20 with just 15 seconds left in regulation. He got up and continued to the end zone, but the play was ruled dead at the spot of the apparent catch.

It would have put the Broncos in field-goal territory, but replay overturned the original call of a completed pass when it showed Sanders failed to control the ball as it hit the ground.

The fact the Browns were even in this game, let alone with a lead at one point, seemed rather amazing considering how they looked in the first half.

Their offense, which seemed on life support in the first 30 minutes, awoke with an eight-play, 74-yard scoring drive to open the second half, McCown connecting with Gary Barnidge on an 11-yard toss early in the third quarter. He hooked up again with his favorite receiver on a 14-yard scoring catch early in the fourth quarter.

On the Denver drive following Barnidge’s second touchdown, Dansby picked off his second pass of the afternoon and tiptoed 35 yards down the right sideline to give the Browns their first lead of the day at 20-16. A two-yard conversion attempt failed.

McCown, falling woefully short of his fourth straight 300-yard game (he had 212), was victimized by a strong Denver pass rush and quality coverage in the secondary. He was sacked four times and whacked another half dozen. Once again, his immobility was costly at the wrong time.

Manning, even less mobile than McCown, threw the three interceptions, but was sacked zero times, the third game this season the Cleveland pass rush has posted that number in a game. The Denver quarterback was hit, if you can call getting close enough to tap him, twice.

This was a game the Browns will look back at when the season concludes and collectively shake their heads, wondering just how it got away when it was clearly within grasp of evening the season record at .500. They don’t have much time to dwell on it now with Rams in St. Louis Rams next up.

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