Sunday, September 16, 2018

Yet another woe-is-me loss

The Browns have suffered some awful dispiriting, gut-wrenching, temper-losing, items-throwing losses over the last 20 years. There are so many, it would be difficult to rank them.

A new entry for entrance into that category emerged Sunday down in New Orleans, where they lost a 21-18 heartbreaker to the Saints in a game they played well enough to win.

Major fingers of guilt will definitely be pointed at placekicker Zane Gonzalez, whose terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day turned into a nightmare that kept his team from smashing an 18-game winless streak and a 21-game road losing skein.

His afternoon started well with a pair of 39-yard field goals to help give the Browns a 12-3 lead heading into the fourth quarter as the defense bent a lot, but did not break. And then it all went (pick your adverb) the rest of the way.

Gonzalez, who very well might an ex-Brown by the time Thursday night’s nationally televised game against the New York Jets rolls around, missed two extra points and field goals of 44 and 52 yards. The latter would have forced the club's second straight overtime game.

It was a game the Browns seemingly had under control heading into the final quarter despite an offense that looked as though the main goal was to get back to basics. The ground game plodded most of the afternoon, piling up yards grudgingly. The passing game featured safe, high-percentage throws in an effort to keep the chains moving.

Clearly an emphasis was placed on keeping dumb mistakes that draw flags to a minimum. Not once was the offensive line called for an infraction. It was basic football at its most boring. Cleveland quarterback Tyrod Taylor rarely attempted to stretch the field.

So when Carlos Hyde scored to give the Browns a 12-3 lead on the first possession of the second half, Gonzalez’s first extra-point miss didn’t seem to matter. The defense, which forced two more turnovers to give it eight for the season, was clicking and the lead, although slim, seemed safe.

But when the second-year kicker missed his 44-yard field-goal attempt at the start of the fourth quarter that would have given the Browns a 15-3 lead, murmurs of concern could be around Browns Nation. In other words, “Here we go again.”

That’s just the way Browns fans think. Don’t blame them. Think the worst and if it doesn’t eventuate, enjoy. If it does, they have learned by now how to deal with it. It has become commonplace to think the worst because this franchise has delivered the worst since returning almost 20 years ago.

And this time, as has happened all too frequently in the past, the worst arrived in the last 14 minutes of the game, the Saints erupting for 18 points against a Cleveland defense that began tiring.

Drew Brees got solid help from running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas, the latter snagging a little two-yard screen pass to culminate a 10-play, 66-yard scoring drive to pull the Saints to within two points.

Taylor was picked by Saints free safety Marcus Williams two series later and the rejuvenated offense turned it into an 18-12 lead, Thomas scoring his second touchdown of the afternoon on a five-yard fade over rookie Denzel Ward after the Browns had held that lead for nearly 51 minutes.

Nearly three minutes remained, but this team, unlike others in the past beaten down by adversity late in games, had one more card to play. It came in the form of something this franchise almost never deals in: a miracle.

With unexpected improbability. Taylor connected on a beautiful 47-yard scoring strike with rookie Antonio Callaway with 1:16 left to tie the game. A miracle. And when Gonzalez missed his second extra point, a second straight overtime game loomed.

Even if he has been successful with the point, all it took for the Saints to win was a field goal, anyway.

But defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who called an extremely aggressive game up to that point, strangely and unexpectedly went conservative, playing zone in the secondary with so little time left in regulation. Perhaps he thought Saints coach Sean Payton would go conservative and take his chances in overtime.

Uh, no. That’s not Sean Payton, especially with Brees as is his quarterback. Seventy-six seconds with two timeouts in his pocket is almost like a lifetime to the veteran, who has a truckload of comeback victories.

Two passes to wide receiver former Clevelander Ted Ginn Jr., one a 42-yard catch and run during which no Cleveland defender was close enough to touch him for about 20 yards. ate up 50 yards and put the ball within the range of Saints kicker Will Lutz, who had earlier missed a 44-yarder. This 44-yarder was true.

An yet, this iteration of the Browns did not meekly go away.

With only 21 seconds to work with, Taylor connected with Jarvis Landry and Callaway against the Saints’ prevent defense to move the ball 41 yards to the Saints’ 34. With eight seconds left and no timeouts, coach Hue Jackson gave Gonzalez a chance at redemption from 52 yards.

Redemption left town, though, as Gonzalez, who had hit on two of three attempts from 50 or more yards last season, was wide right as he tried to compensate for his previous wide-left misses.

The only positive from the outcome of this game is that the Browns are moving that much closer to the time when they will win games like this. Unfortunately, that seems a bit far-fetched right now.