In the frustrating fashion that has become the norm in Butch Davis' three seasons as coach, the Browns lost 9-6 to the Indianapolis Colts Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium when Mike Vanderjagt booted a 45-yard field goal with just one second remaining.
It shouldn't have come as much of a shock. The Browns have now lost six straight openers dating back to 1995, including three straight years at home on last-second field goals. What was a surprise, however, was the fact that the Browns offense and not their much maligned defense played the role of the goat.
"I'm disappointed and a little bit angry," said Davis. "We had some chances to win this ballgame. I was very proud of the way the defense played. If you had said before the game today ‘you are going to hold Indianapolis' offense to nine points,' you'd really feel good about that performance."
What made the loss so hard to swallow was the Browns failure to reach the end zone after a first-and-goal inside the Colts 1-yard line in the first quarter, and again after a first-and-goal from the 3 in the fourth quarter.
"That is what caused us to lose the football game," said Browns quarterback Kelly Holcomb. "When you get down there twice after all the plays we made, we have to get one of those in. All the mistakes wee made ... that was the determining factor of the game. When you get it on the one-yard line, you have to get it in. We didn't do that."
A disappointing performance by Holcomb in his first regular season game since beating out Tim Couch for the starting quarterback job, played a big part in the Browns' offensive problems.
Holcomb completed 20-of-29 passes, but for just 182 yards. He was also intercepted twice by Colts safety Nick Harper when he admittedly "got a little greedy" trying to thread the needle into double and triple coverage. The picks and several other egregious errors led a dismal 57.0 quarterback rating.
Holcomb's biggest mistake of the day may have been a rushed fourth-quarter pass to running back William Green on a third down from the Colts' 2. With no pressure in his face, Holcomb threw behind Green on the swing pass to the right sideline. Green had an open road to the end zone, but the poor throw hit his hip and fell incomplete.
A touchdown would have put the Browns ahead 10-6 with just under 10 minutes remaining. Instead, they were forced to settle for an unsatisfying game-tying 20-yard field goal by Phil Dawson after a long 18-play, 86-yard drive that took 9:59 off the clock..
"We had a good play down there," said Holcomb. "We got the defense we thought we'd get. We just have to make those plays."
Green (21 carries, 86 yards) should have scored to cap another long drive on the Browns first possession. After picking up a first down inside the Colts 1, a short loss on a run and an incompletion by Holcomb led to a third-down sweep by Green, who followed right tackle Ryan Tucker towards the right pylon.
Marcus Washington shed Tucker's block, then teamed with linebacker David Thornton to drop Green at the 1. After the three failed shots from the 1-yard line, Phil Dawson kicked a 19-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead. It was little consolation after a 12-play, 76-yard drive that took more than eight minutes off the first-quarter clock.
The Browns defense, meanwhile, held its own - young linebackers and all.
In fact, strongside linebacker Kevin Bentley and weakside linebacker Ben Taylor both ended drives with interceptions of Colts star quarterback Peyton Manning (27-of-43, 211 yards, 55.5 rating). Bentley's first quarter interception in the end zone spoiled a long drive by the Colts on first-and-goal at the Browns 2.
"We didn't win the game, but I think we showed we can play," said Bentley. "The scary thing is, we are only going to get better."
The Colts only points came on Vanderjagt field goals of 22, 46 and 45 yards in the second, third and fourth quarters. The game-winner capped Manning's dink-and-dunk, 11-play 65-yard drive in the final 2:39. The big play to keep the drive alive was Manning's 15-yard hookup with Reggie Wayne on 3rd-and-10 from the Colts 34.
It was the kind of disappointing finish the Browns have grown to expect over the years.
Tucker sat next to rookie center Jeff Faine on the sideline as Manning led the Colts down the field for the win.
"I told him to get used to it," said Tucker. "You play your tail off the whole game and it comes down to a field goal. You hate for it to be like that, but that's the way it happens sometimes."
"These home openers are something else," said Holcomb, who came to Cleveland in Davis' first year in 2001. "That first year, we lost 9-6 to Seattle, then last year we lost 40-39 to Kansas City (on the infamous helmet-throwing incident by Dwayne Rudd), and then we lose again 9-6. It's tough, but we have some high-character guys on this team, and we will bounce back."