The Browns set a new low for performance and a new high for frustration in Sunday's loss to Buffalo.
After winning two games in a row, Cleveland played dismally Sunday in a 13-6 defeat. The loss raised every question about the team's future: coaching judgment, conservative calls, over-reliance on one player offensively, the lack of playmakers on the offense.
The Browns turned to Jake Delhomme at quarterback, and he came up with an 86-yard, one-interception, one-fumble game. Coach Eric Mangini never thought of going away from Delhomme.
Peyton Hillis started quickly, but the game turned on one of his early fumbles, and he never recovered -- adding two more fumbles later. Once Hillis was lost, the Browns lacked the passing game to compete.
Mangini also eschewed a fourth-and-1 attempt for a touchdown on the game's first possession, taking a field goal, a curious decision for a 5-7 team.
The Browns could have been buoyed when fortunate breaks went their way late in wins over Carolina and Miami. Instead, they played tentatively and poorly in a game that was winnable.
It's the kind of loss that can reverberate after the season.
REPORT CARD vs. BILLS
PASSING OFFENSE: F -- The passing game was never a factor in the loss. Jake Delhomme did not play well, but he was also hampered by a game plan so conservative Newt Gingrich would look twice. The Browns simply do not throw the ball down the field, instead relying on a running game and the tight end. They might not have the ability to throw down the field, but if Peyton Hillis is slowed and Ben Watson is doubled, the offense struggles. It's only compounded by the play of the quarterback, which Sunday was weak, at best.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C-minus -- Peyton Hillis started fast, but things went downhill from there. Once Hillis fumbled in the first half, and once he fumbled twice more as the game went on, the running game became a turnover waiting to happen. Hillis might have needed time to clear his head, but he won't get that with Mike Bell as his backup. The Browns traded their change-of-pace back and second option when they sent Jerome Harrison to Philadelphia. As Hillis goes, so go the Browns. On Sunday, Hillis was in a funk.
PASS DEFENSE: D-plus -- The conditions never seemed to bother Ryan Fitzpatrick. He threw for 142 yards and ran for 49 more, a pretty productive effort on a day not meant for great production. The Bills did not score a lot, but they did move the ball. They had 19 first downs to the Browns' nine, and 323 yards to the Browns' 187. Fitzpatrick's efficiency was the key reason.
RUSH DEFENSE: D -- The Bills ran far more effectively than most thought they would, totaling 192 yards. Almost 50 of them came from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, but they were all important as Fitzpatrick kept drives alive with his legs. Fred Jackson topped 100 yards, and C.J. Spiller averaged 4 yards per carry. All in all, it was not a good day for the Cleveland defense.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- Reggie Hodges had another strong game punting, Phil Dawson made both his field-goal attempts, and the coverage units again were strong. But the absence of a big play in the return game has haunted the Browns all season. This was a game in which a Josh Cribbs return might have made a difference; he had 7 yards on one return.
COACHING: D-minus -- Eric Mangini continues on his path of teeth-gnashing losses. It's tough to explain why a losing team would go for a field goal on fourth-and-1 on the team's first drive, but that's what Mangini did. His explanation: The game would be close, and he needed the points. It almost sounds prophetic -- or as if he did not believe his offense could score or his team could control the game. Then there is the (over)reliance on Hillis. He has been outstanding for the Browns this season, but he can't carry the entire offense. Not every game. When he is shut down, the Browns struggle. The way the Browns played this game makes the previous two seem more than lucky. Cleveland continues to believe in mirages; it is simply not a good team.