Sunday, October 14, 2018

Payback is sweet (for Chargers)

 The last time the Los Angeles Chargers visited Cleveland, it was Christmas Eve day in 2016 and they were the San Diego Chargers.

The Browns, careening toward the second 0-16 season in National Football League history, short-circuited that ignominy with a 20-17 victory over the Chargers when Josh Lambo’s last-second, game-tying field goal attempt drifted right.

The Browns, who carried a 17-game losing streak into the game, celebrated so heartily and lengthily, one would have thought they had just won the Super Bowl. Tears of joy flowed as the players joined in celebration up close and personal with the sparse crowd.

“Finally getting that win . . . definitely felt amazing,” confessed All-Pro offensive tackle Joe Thomas. “You don’t want to say it was like out Super Bowl, but it was.”

As the Browns celebrated that day, the Chargers, who relocated to Los Angeles last season, stored that little joyous Cleveland moment in the memory bank. And cashed it in big time Sunday in a monstrous payback.

The Chargers overwhelmed the Browns in so many different ways, one would have thought the old Browns, those lovable losers of the last 19 seasons, had returned and transformed the stadium by the lakefront back into the Factory of Sadness.

It was an unfair fight from the beginning as the Chargers (pick one: pounded, spanked, throttled, humiliated, smothered, dominated, pummeled) the Browns, 38-14, and it was not even that close. Never mind, all those verbs work . . . as do numerous others.

It was unfair because the Chargers came prepared to do something the Browns were totally unprepared to do: Play a football game. Oh . . . and gain a large measure of revenge with memory of that Christmas Eve day 22 months ago.

It was a combination of a quick-striking Los Angeles offense and stingy defense that made the Browns look much more the Browns of the miserable last two seasons than the one that was 2-2-1 entering the game.

The Cleveland defense, which seemed to revert to its bad self as it did in the Oakland loss, had little or no answer for the passing of Philip Rivers, the running of Melvin Gordon and the running and receiving of Keenan Allen and Tyrell Williams.

The so-called jet reverse sweep featuring mostly Allen was wide open all day and the Browns had no clue on how to stop it. The edge of the Cleveland defense was like a turnpike with no cars as the Chargers offensive line made sure the edge was clean.

Gordon, who scored three touchdowns, shredded the Browns for 132 yards. Austin Ekeler entered the game late and picked up another 60 yards as the Chargers rang up 246 yards on the ground.

Williams and Rivers single-handedly took the mystery out of the game in the second quarter with a dazzling aerial display that revealed way too many problems in the Cleveland secondary.

They went to work after the Browns’ offense blew three straight opportunities after starting drives in plus territory (their 46 and the Chargers’ 33 and 39). They produced just a Greg Joseph field goal and two Britton Colquitt punts.

The second Colquitt punt pinned the Chargers back at their 11 with 7:44 left in the second quarter, the visitors clinging to a 7-3 lead. Two plays and 70 seconds later, it was 14-3 as Rivers hooked up with Williams on pass plays of 44 and 45 yards.

Williams split middle linebacker Joe Schobert and free safety Damarious Randall to grab the first and outfought Randall and strong safety Derrick Kindred on the second. All three gripped the ball in the end zone, but simultaneous catches always go to the offensive player.

On their next possession, the Chargers marched 77 yards through the porous Cleveland defense in six plays, Rivers reconnecting with Williams on a 29-yard scoring play against rookie cornerback Denzel Ward.

Chargers left tackle Russell Okung clearly drop-stepped back into pass protection at least a beat too early, but was not flagged. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference, anyway. The way the Browns were playing defense, the Chargers would have scored eventually.

Of the 58 plays theys ran on offense, 17 produced at least double-digit gains. Of those 17, six were what are known as chunk plays, those that gain 20 or more yards. That’s how ineffectual the Cleveland defense was.

The Los Angeles defense, meanwhile, hounded and mauled Baker Mayfield all afternoon. If they weren’t in his face, they were clawing and grabbing anything they could when in the vicinity.

When they weren’t dropping the rookie quarterback five times (a sixth was negated by a penalty), they were quite literally in his face. So much so he had trouble finding receivers downfield, especially Jarvis Landry, who was targeted nine times and caught only two.

It was the first time this season where coming in high uncovered his Mayfield’s greatness weakness. His relative diminutive stature hampered him when scoping the field. He rarely had time to throw, let alone find someone to throw to. He looked human and vulnerable.

He was 22-of-46 for 238 yards, one touchdown pass (to tight end David Njoku) and a pair of interceptions by free safety Desmond King. He was victimized by a couple of dropped passes in the end zone, but it was not nearly enough to overcome a relentless Chargers pass rush.

Now you can blame the ineffectiveness of the Cleveland offensive line, which had its worst afternoon this season, but the absence of quick developing pass plays was a factor.

It is entirely possible the Browns came into this one feeling pretty good about themselves. After all, they were unbeaten at home this season, slowly but surely welcoming fans back onto the bandwagon and facing a team traveling through three time zones.

Their rookie quarterback was the talk of the NFL, not to mention a defense that played well enough to keep them in games to the point where they arguably could be 5-0.

For the first time since 2014, when the Browns began 7-4 and occupied first place in the AFC North for a brief time, many fans of the league were starting to pay attention to the revamped Cleveland Browns.

And then along comes a game like this against the Chargers that rudely jolted fans back to reality. Back to the days when games like this were commonplace. Back to the days when this franchise was the laughingstock of the NFL.

It is not fair to judge the Browns based on this one game, though. That judgment will undergo a severe test in the next two weeks when the Browns travel to Tampa to play the 2-3 Buccaneers, and follow with game No 2 against Pittsburgh, a team seeking revenge after playing to a tie in the season opener.

Sort of the type of revenge the Chargers sought – and enjoyed – against the Browns Sunday.

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