Literally from Sunday’s first play, the question facing the Cleveland Browns in their game against
Looking every bit like a developing team suddenly thrust into the middle of a playoff race, the Browns stumbled and bumbled out of the gate and found themselves spending much of the rest of the game trying to first overcome and then get out of the way of themselves. And each time it seemed like they were about to do just that, they made still another mistake and now instead of putting some distance between themselves and the rest of the AFC wild card wannabes, they are barely clinging to a playoff spot at 7-5.
If it were simply a case of listing all of the various missteps that led to the loss, it wouldn’t do justice to the context. Just noting, for example, the several personal fouls the Browns committed might cause one to gloss over Simon Fraser’s head butt that cost the Browns 15 important yards at the end of the game. That penalty, a final fitting gesture on a day littered with them, put the Browns in a bigger hole than they already were in after following Neil Rackers 19-yard field goal that stretched the Cardinals lead to 27-21 with 1:52 left in the game.
In the end, the Browns got the result they deserved.
If you spend your life reading tea leaves or deciphering signs, how this game would ultimately unfold was evident early. On the first play from scrimmage, quarterback Derek Anderson was flagged for intentionally grounding, though not because he was under pressure so much but because he inexplicably threw into the left flat with no Browns receiver anywhere close. You may go the rest of your life and never see intentional grounding on the first play of a game again. Unfortunately, it wasn’t
On a third and eight from the Cardinals 41 yard-line,
On the very next series, he fumbled the snap from center Hank Fraley, which defensive lineman Antonio Smith recovered at the
After Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner missed receiver Bryant Johnson on third and four, the ball fell harmlessly to the ground. Inexplicably, cornerback Leigh Bodden immediately kicked the football downfield, leading to a delay of game flag, a five yard penalty, and a Cardinals first down. Four plays later, with a Robaire Smith offsides penalty thrown in for good measure, Warner hit tight end Leonard Pope for a five-yard touchdown pass and with less than half the first quarter gone, the Browns were already down 14-0.
It should be noted that on that play, linebacker Leon Williams had Pope covered initially. But Williams couldn’t hold coverage for even one
A few additional mistakes for good measure, including another
But as they’ve done for most of the season, the Browns offense, fueled by
On the one hand, the fact that the Browns were only down four at the half was an indication of the state of the Cardinals offense. On the other hand, so dominant were the Browns statistically in that half that it’s hard to believe they weren’t up by 20.
But if the Browns thought that this domination would serve them well going into the second half, it wasn’t the only mistake they’d make from that point on. After a mostly lethargic third quarter by both teams, things turned suddenly for the worse when Cribbs, bumping into Devon Holly, muffed a Berger punt late in the quarter and deep in the Browns’ territory. It wasn’t their only mistake.
On first and goal, following another obligatory Browns penalty (roughing on Sean Jones for a horsecollar tackle), Warner hit a wide open Pope in the end zone. This was an even easier touchdown opportunity than Pope’s first grab, apparently too easy, and he dropped it. But in the process Pope practically handed the ball to Chaun Thompson, who, not surprisingly, proceeded to drop it as well. Warner then hit a wide-open Johnson two plays later for the touchdown that put the Cardinals up 21-10.
Apparently, though, the Browns need to work from behind and just as apparently aren’t above putting themselves in a position to ensure that’s the case. After Cribbs nearly fumbled the ensuing kickoff,
Wanting to get the game to within a field goal, the Browns decided to go for the two-point conversion. With Anderson behind center and Cribbs in the backfield,
But the Cardinals came right back, pushing the lead to six on a Neil Rackers 33-yard field goal with 12:10 left in the fourth quarter. Consecutive three and outs by both teams led to a Berger punt to Cribbs who did what he does, taking the ball from the
This was the point where it would be nice to write that the much maligned defense again found a way to make the key plays late. Instead, the mistakes continued. With the Cardinals needing to run the clock, virtually everyone in
But as hard as James ran during that final series, the Cardinals were aided by, what else, a couple more key mistakes, the biggest of which was defensive back Brodney Pool’s personal foul. After the Browns put the Cardinals in a passing situation, one of the few the Cardinals would need, Warner connected on a 15-yard pass to Steve Breaston, which was immediately and effectively turned into a 30-yard play when Pool pushed Breaston to the ground after he was already out of bounds. Even when the Browns defense finally tightened at the goal line and the Cardinals were forced to kick a field goal, too much time had slipped through the Browns fingers, undone were they ultimately by the mound of mistakes they had piled up the previous 58 minutes.
The final drive was courageous and semi-effective, even after Fraser’s aforementioned penalty turned what would have been a 67-yard field into an 82-yard field. But with no timeouts remaining and
Statistically, the Browns mostly handled the Cardinals all day.
Though the loss was hardly critical to the Browns playoff chances, it gave the Steelers unneeded breathing room in the AFC North. It also gave the Browns all the reminder that they need that the playoffs aren’t given, they’re earned. And the best way for the Browns to earn their keep at this point is to not to just acknowledge that mistakes were made but to actually do the hard work of first correcting and then learning from them. Next week’s game against the New York Jets would be a good place to start.