Sunday, October 21, 2018

Will it ever end?

The open-mouth look on Baker Mayfield’s face at the end of the game Sunday silently said it all. It accurately reflected abject and total disbelief.

As Chandler Catanzaro’s field goal sailed cleanly through the uprights from 59 yards to give the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a 26-23 overtime victory over the Browns, the rookie Browns quarterback’s face wore a bewildered, I-don’t-believe-what-I-just-saw look.

Not even Robert Ripley would have believed what unfolded for more than three-and-a-half hours Sunday down in Tampa. It was that alternately bizarre, frustrating and entertaining all afternoon.

In some ways, Catanzaro’s game winner with 1:50 left in overtime was a fitting ending in an afternoon that saw the Bucs snap a three-game losing streak and extend the Browns’ losing streak on the road to 24 in a row in agonizing fashion.

The afternoon saw each team squander numerous scoring opportunities, especially the Browns, who turned four more turnovers into just seven points. The game reached overtime, the fourth for the Browns this season, when Catanzaro’s 40-yard field goal attempt on the final play of regulation was a foot outside the right upright.

Ironically, the only turnover by the Browns all afternoon late in OT extended a Tampa Bay possession after the defense held the Bucs to a three-and-out. And wouldn’t you know it. Chalk this one up to, ta da, the special teams.

Jabrill Peppers returned a Bryan Anger punt 14 yards to the Cleveland 38, but was stripped of the football and the Bucs resumed their, as it turned out, game winning drive after recovering at the Browns’ 48.

Still, the defense was headed for yet another three-and out, when rookie linebacker Genard Avery jumped the snap on third-and-3 and was rewarded with the Browns’ sixth penalty of the afternoon on third down that gave the Bucs a first down. It was the club’s 14th penalty of the day, a sad commentary on the team’s discipline.

The defense earlier in the extra session blunted a promising Bucs drive when Jamie Collins picked off Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston deep in Cleveland territory.

The final result appeared headed for a tie when the Cleveland pass rush sacked Winston on consecutive plays totaling 19 yards, pushing the Bucs well out of Catanzaro’s range.

A 14-yard completion to DeSean Jackson against soft coverage looked innocuous enough as the Browns stood ready to take the field again, figuring Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter would send out Anger.

What they didn’t realize until a few minutes later was the only time they would take the field again would be to trot to the dressing room after yet another improbable, agonizing, why-is-this-still-happening-to-us loss.

They not for one moment believed Catanzaro, who has a 60-yard field goal on his résumé, would be successful from long distance. But this was no ordinary afternoon and the improbable became reality.

The stunning and sudden end ruined a Browns rally in the second half after playing miserable and mistake-laden football the first 30 minutes, during which they trailed, 16-2. Their only score was a safety on Tampa Bay’s initial possession.

They looked suspiciously like the Browns teams of the last way too many seasons when virtually nothing worked on both sides of the football. Fans has to be asking themselves, “Where have I seen this before? Oh yeah. That’s right. The last 19 seasons.”

Dropped passes, few running lanes and poor pass protection on offense; loose coverage in the secondary and too much arm tackling on defense were the lowlight culprits. The closest they came to scoring in the first half was when Christian Kirksey recovered a Cameron Brate fumble at the Tampa Bay 19 with 50 seconds left.

With the way the offense was operating, it shouldn’t have been a surprise the brief drive ended when Mayfield, carrying the football like a loaf of bread, was stripped of the ball, which rolled backward out of bounds one yard shy of the line to gain on fourth down after he had initially gained the necessary yardage.

The Bucs, meanwhile, put together scoring drives of 55 yards and 75 yards, Jackson and Winston reaching the end zone on the ground, Jackson on a 14-yard reverse and Winston on a 13-yard scramble.

The Browns totaled only 74 yards and three first downs on offense in seven drives and surrendered 243 yards and 18 first downs on defense. They looked like an entirely different team in the second half.

It began when Myles Garrett strip-sacked Winston and Avery returned the fumble to the Bucs 26. Three plays later, Mayfield, looking much more confident, hooked up with David Njoku on a 15-yard scoring strike.

Winston, who entered the game with a 1-10 record in his last 11 starts, led a 13-play, 73-yard retaliatory drive, rookie Ronald Jones bolting the final two yards for the first touchdown on the ground for a Tampa running back this season.

The rejuvenated Cleveland offense immediately came back with a seven-play drive that covered 75 yards, Nick Chubb scoring from a yard out. It was helped immensely by a pass interference call in the end zone.

Chubb acquitted himself well in his first pro start, replacing the traded Carlos Hyde as the lead back. He gained 80 tough yards, many of them after contact, on 18 carries with the one score

The Browns, running smoothly now on offense, came close to pulling even on their next possession, traveling 79½ yards to the Tampa Bay one-foot line in nine plays. Mayfield’s sneak on fourth down was ruled short with 4:55 left.

The defense, replied with another three-and-out, but this time, Peppers responded with a 32-yard return (yes, no flags!) to the Bucs’ 16-yard line. One play later, Mayfield and Jarvis Landry, who wound up with 10 receptions for 97 yards, collaborated to pull even with 2:28 left.

And that’s when the bizarre twists and turns took center stage, each club threatening until Catanzaro solved the mystery of the final score with his extraordinary leg as the Browns added yet another chapter of misery and frustration to a book too full of them.

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