In the end, it's still a loss
It was a game that practically begged the Browns to win and salvage at least a small measure of self-respect and end an impressive winning streak.
They came oh so close Sunday in Kansas City, but time ran out and the Chiefs escaped with their ninth straight victory in a game that looked all but over in the first half.
If not for yet another blocked field-goal attempt by Cleveland’s Travis Coons, this one partially blocked from 51 yards on the last play of the first half, the Browns’ final drive of the game very easily could have resulted in a game-winning field goal.
But the woulda, coulda, shoulda axiom just produced another didn’t as the Browns, in spite of a sensational second-half comeback, dropped a 17-13 verdict to a Chiefs team that hung on for dear life in the final 30 minutes.
Those 30 minutes, however, featured some bizarre football, including a fake punt, an offensive lineman catching a forward pass and a long, long, long drive that had to be seen to be believed.
It was a dynamic flip of the script as the Browns, badly outplayed in the first 30 minutes when the Chiefs took a 17-3 halftime lead, completely took charge on both sides of the ball.
The Cleveland defense, on the field for 21 minutes and 14 seconds in the first half, was slapped around by the passing and running of Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in the first 30 minutes.
Smith picked on Cleveland cornerback Tramon Williams mercilessly. Williams was the cover man on touchdown passes to Jeremy Maclin in the first quarter and tight end Travis Kelce in the final minute of the second quarter and picked up a 40-yard pass interference penalty in the second quarter.
And then for whatever reason, the Cleveland defense showed up big time in the second half, playing unquestionably their best half of the season. They took stingy to an entirely new level.
In three possessions, the Chiefs ran 14 plays for 58 net yards, took only seven minutes and 42 seconds off the clock and trotted punter Dustin Colquitt onto the field three times.
Nothing worked for the Chiefs. They looked like a different team. The running game disappeared and Smith, whose first-half scrambling accounted for 54 of the Chiefs’ 136 rushing yards, looked totally inept.
In fact, they looked very much like the Browns have most of the season, like a team barely hanging on to finish the season, not one aiming for their ninth straight victory.
The Cleveland turnaround was very likely inspired by the offense’s first possession of the second half. In the first half, the attack put up only 124 yards, but 47 of those yards were gained against a soft Kansas City defense in the final half minute.
Johnny Manziel, looking more and more comfortable at quarterback, kicked off a nine-play, 82-yard scoring drive with a 34-yard freeze option run around left end. Eight plays later, Isaiah Crowell scampered 10 yards for the touchdown and all of a sudden, it was a game.
Manziel’s scramble had to make Browns fans wonder why he chose to remain in the pocket in the first half and not use his natural ability to run out of trouble. Playing with determination and grit, he wound up leading the Browns with 108 running yards – the Browns racked up 232 infantry style – in addition to 136 yards through the air.
After the defense blunted the first KC drive of the second half, the Cleveland offense returned and put together, with plenty of daring help from a coaching staff that has been way too conservative this season, easily the most remarkable drive of the season.
After what appeared to be a three-and-out, Andy Lee dropped back into punt formation at his 7-yard line on a fourth-and-8. But snapper Charley Hughlett’s snap never reached him. It went instead to up man Jordan Poyer and the safety broke two tackles en route to a 10-yard gain and a new set of downs.
It extended a possession that transcends belief. The Browns owned the ball for 12 minutes and a second and ran 21 plays that covered, it seemed in slow motion, 62 yards.
Mixing passes with his ability to use his feet, Manziel scrambled six times for 30 of those yards, as the drive took up the final five minutes and 27 seconds of the third quarter and the first six minutes and 34 seconds of the fourth.
Halfway through the seemingly never-ending drive, which took 27 minutes of real time to complete, Manziel was trapped behind the line of scrimmage on a second-and-eight on one of his six dropbacks and heaved the ball backward over his head as he was falling to the nearest white jeyseyed Brown he saw.
Turns out it was offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who caught the ball and sheepishly went to his knee. The faux pas resulted in a grounding call and short-circuited the drive, which had reached the Kansas City 7, and resulted in a Coons 36-yard field goal.
“All that work for just three points,” lamented CBS-TV analyst Rich Gannon.
The defense needed just five plays to get the ball back to the offense, which reached the Kansas City 30, but ran out of downs with 2:52 left in regulation. Not to worry. The defense forced a three-and-out against a conservative Chiefs offense and with 1:52 left, the Cleveland offense was back on the field at its 30 but out of timeouts.
For some reason, the Browns in such cases do not play smart. The Chiefs basically forced everything to the middle of the field, making certain the Browns could not stop the clock with boundary plays designed to take the ball out of bounds and stop the clock.
Manziel crammed 10 plays into that time frame, including one spike following a first down with 28 seconds left and the ball at the KC 32. He threw eight passes, none near the boundaries, and completed three, the last one an 14-yarder to Darius Jennings in the field of play as the clock ticked off the final seconds.
The Browns, who deserved a better fate, scrambled to get off one last play, but time ran out as Kansas City fans heaved a huge sigh of relief knowing their Chiefs nearly blew this one.
Manziel, who often seemed confused by the Chiefs’ pass coverage, attempted no sideline passes as time wound down. Smarter playcalling under the gun might have made the final seconds much more interesting.
It goes down as just another loss for this moribund team, but this was one the Browns had nothing of which to be ashamed. They played one of the hottest teams in the NFL on the road and acquitted themselves well.