Sunday, October 4, 2015

So close and yet . . .

It just wasn’t meant to be.

As much as Browns fans silently urged San Diego Chargers kicker Josh Lambo’s second field-goal attempt to sail wide like the first one with no time left in a 27-27 game Sunday, it just wasn’t meant to be.

When Lambo’s first attempt from 39 yards sailed just wide of the right upright, collective sighs and shouts of joy erupted throughout most of Browns Nation. The optimists looked forward to overtime. There was a real chance to win this one, considering their strong comeback.

The pessimists looked for a flag before getting excited about the miss. That’s how ingrained the I-wonder-what-will happen-next-to spoil-our-fun type of thinking is among some of the less faithful, i.e. more realistic, fans.

The pessimists won.

The flag, thrown correctly when Tramon Williams tried to time the snap and jumped a fraction too early (although the official failed to see the edge blocker grab his jersey, which would have created offsetting penalties), gave the rookie kicker a second chance and he didn’t miss from 34 yards.

Winning this one just wasn’t meant to be.

The only National Football League team that seemingly has had a black cloud hovering over it for the last 16 plus years was victimized once again in a cold-blooded way.

It’s not that the Browns didn’t deserve to win. More correctly stated, they didn’t deserve to lose, although their habit of giving up big plays at the wrong time created a hole they managed to crawl out of on the arm of quarterback Josh McCown, who completed 32 passes (in 41 attempts) for 356 yards and a couple of touchdowns.

Once again, big plays by opposing offenses hurt the Browns big time. How many plays of more than 50 yards has the defense allowed this season? The correct is answer is too many.

Sunday, two more plays that covered more than 60 yards fueled a Chargers attack that stammered and stuttered. Quarterback Philip Rivers also was missing three starters on his offensive line and two of his best wide receivers who went down in the first half, but still managed to throw for 358 yards and three scores.

Thrown in Keenan Allen’s 28-yard scoring strike against Pierre Desir, filling in for the injured Joe Haden, in the first quarter and you have another reason the Browns fell to 1-3 with four of the next six games on the road.

The 30-27 loss no doubt leaves a bitter feeling in the hearts and minds of Browns Nation, even those who believed they had no chance.

But for the first time this season, the Browns after a slow start actually played a representative football game, certainly one they could walk away from not having any self doubts.

Moments before Lambo booted his third field goal of the game through the uprights, the Browns had battled back to tie the game at 27-27 with 2:09 left on a 1-yard scoring pass to tight end Gary Barnidge, whose terrific sideline reception two plays earlier was initially ruled no catch, but was reversed following a replay challenge by Mike Pettine.

They tied it with a well designed and executed two-point play with Taylor Gabriel curling behind Andrew Hawkins, who created a rub in the slot that gave Gabriel just enough room to make the catch a yard inside the end zone.

In doing so, the Browns, who owned the ball for more than 34 minutes, showed for the first time this season a resiliency that seemed to be missing in the first three games. They actually arrived ready to play a game of football on both sides of the ball.

They also discovered Duke Johnson Jr. is a player they can count on in the clutch. The rookie running back touched the ball 17 times (nine as a receiver), accounting for 116 yards and a touchdown, but more important seems to have the talent to turn a negative play positive with his quick feet.

The Cleveland defense, playing without Haden, actually held an opponent’s running game under 100 yards (91), but unfortunately had no answer for those big plays.

The first, a 61-yard catch and run by smallish running back Danny Woodhead, who sneaked out of the backfield and was all alone over the middle, set up Lardarius Green’s touchdown on the following play. The 6-6 tight end reached over 5-11 Cleveland safety Donte Whitner to make the catch as the Chargers regained the lead at 20-16 late in the third quarter.

Then after Travis Coons’ fourth field goal of the game brought the Browns to within three early in the fourth quarter, Rivers hooked up with Dontrelle Inman for a 68-yard catch and run on a third-and-6 from the San Diego 31 before linebacker Barkevious Mingo chased him down and shoved him out of bounds at the Cleveland 1.

Two plays later, Rivers lofted a one-yard scoring pass to tight end John Phillips, who slipped into the end zone untouched to make it 27-19 as the Browns foolishly committed 11 men to the line of scrimmage. It might be the easiest touchdown Phillips will ever score.

That’s when the Browns, who deserved a better fate at least on the offensive side of the ball, displayed a toughness that heretofore had been missing in the final stages of a game.

They were so efficient during their impressive, game-tying 10-play, 67-yard scoring drive, there was no need to convert a third down along the way. Good thing since they were just four-of-13 in that department all day.

McCown, playing with a sore throwing hand, has more than justified Pettine’s decision to start him over Johnny Manziel. On the negative side, he was sacked four times by a defense that had recorded only one sack in the first three games, mainly because he held on to the ball too long.

He was strip-sacked on the second series of the game, the only turnover of the game, but the defense responded with a three-and-out against Rivers.

If this is an example of the Cleveland offense we will see the rest of the season, assuming McCown, who relied heavily on his checkdowns against the Chargers, can stay healthy enough to run it, it should be fun the rest of the way.

But the Baltimore Ravens, next Sunday’s opponent on the road, have a significantly better defense than San Diego and will be a sterner test for the veteran quarterback, whose ability to bring his team back against the Chargers should provide an emotional, if not psychological lift, for the offense this week.

As for Sunday in San Diego, though, winning just wasn’t meant to happen for this star-crossed franchise.

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