Passan: Playoffs? What Playoffs?

The Browns have no one but themselves to blame for losing control of their own destiny

In the last few weeks, Browns coach Romeo Crennel steadfastly refused to utter the P word and instructed his men to follow suit.

Playoffs? What playoffs?

Then last week, after shutting out Buffalo, that dirty little word crept into comments by some players as the game against the Cincinnati Bengals approached.

The Browns had played so hard for the last 13 weeks, especially on offense, to get this close and the postseason was dead ahead. All they needed was a victory over the Bengals, a team headed nowhere, a team with nothing on the line except setting up golf dates for the offseason.

One more victory. That's all. Is that asking too much, especially against a team that surrendered 51 points to the Browns in the second game of the season when all its players were healthy?

Apparently so because in this season of giving, the Browns took it literally and delivered their Christmas gifts a couple of days early to the Bengals.

Perhaps Crennel should have extended that ban one more week because the Browns looked and played more like a team with no chance at the postseason Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

They came out flat and sluggish on offense and defense. There was no sense or urgency in their body language. They appeared to be going through the motions.

The Bengals swung the first punch time and again and the Browns did not retaliate. It was as though they felt that sooner or later, their talent would kick in and the game would change.

Pressure makes athletes and coaches do funny things. How else can one explain Derek Anderson's four interceptions against a Bengals secondary depleted by injuries; a multitude of dropped passes by receivers who have been so reliable this season; another poor performance by the run defense; and some questionable play calling by offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who forgot that running the football is also part of the offensive arsenal.

It was uncharted territory for the Browns. A must-win situation or else face the consequences. Looks as though they can't handle that kind of pressure. At least not yet.

It took just 61 seconds late in the second quarter to undo a season filled with pleasant surprises when they gifted the Bengals twice and made their road to the playoffs a lot bumpier.

Anderson looked more like Charlie Frye with his inept performance, which did nothing to quiet the smoldering debate as to whether he should be the Browns' starting quarterback next season. Of course he should despite looking nothing like the passer who strafed the Cincinnati secondary for five touchdowns in the second game of the season.

He looked confused as the Bengals' secondary threw all kinds of combination defenses at him. One does not like to see a quarterback with both hands on his helmet wondering what went wrong.

In the spirit of the season, however, the Bengals tried mightily to return the gifts late in the game, but the Browns would have none of that and politely rejected the benevolence.

This game was lost due to a slew of mistakes. Like Dave Zastudil fumbling a snap on a field-goal attempt; the inability of the offense to take advantage of exquisite field position on four occasions; and the inability of the front seven to stop Bengals running back Kenny Watson.

The Browns began drives in Cincinnati territory four times (thee in the final quarter) and came away with just one touchdown. That is disquieting.

So was the failure of Chudzinski to realize strong swirling winds played havoc all day with the passes of Anderson and Cincinnati's Carson Palmer and dictated a heavier ground game, much as it did in last week's victory against Buffalo in blizzard-like conditions.

On a day that clearly favored the infantry, Chudzinski's strategy left one puzzled. It begged for a different approach. None arrived.

Of the six first-half Cleveland series, five began with a pass. In the second half, all six started with a pass.

As good as he's been in his role as the offensive coordinator this season, Chudzinski fell well short in this one.

This is not meant to totally fault the wind for Anderson's problems. The Bengals' secondary was just as responsible for that. But Jamal Lewis was severely underused by Chudzinski, when it was apparent the running game was beginning to work.

Perhaps Chudzinski allowed himself to think back to the first quarter when Lewis failed to pick up a first down on fourth-and-1 at the Cincinnati 19 following the first of two Leigh Bodden interceptions. Maybe he forgot that Lewis is a much stronger runner as the game progresses. \

Why throw the ball with first-and-goal at the Cincinnati 9 on the first series of the second half? When you have a power back like Lewis, you use him inside the 10-yard line. No need to throw.

The Bengals were up by three scores, but the Browns' offensive line started shoving the Bengals around in the second half. It made sense to run. Sure, the Browns are a pass-first team, but the running game was not broken.

The Bengals realized Palmer, who threw just 21 passes, had problems with the wind and called Watson's number 30 times. The Browns knew he was going to run and still couldn't stop him.

It was as though Chudzinski played his hand inside out. He did the Bengals a favor by stubbornly trying to force their secondary to beat him. And they obliged, thanks to the wind and Anderson's bewilderment.

So now, the Browns sit on the cusp of the playoffs instead of in them. The Tennessee Titans, who climbed into a tie with the Browns for the final playoff spot, hold the edge in all the tie-breakers but one heading into the final week.

The Titans, however, must defeat the 13-2 Colts in Indianapolis next Sunday night in order to dismiss the Browns from the postseason. The Browns can sneak in even if they lose to the San Francisco 49ers at home. That's because they will have a better conference record (the second tie-breaker) if the Titans lose to the Colts.

A word of caution: The Colts have already clinched the No. 2 seed in the AFC and coach Tony Dungy, if history is any indication, likes to play his starters sparingly in these cases. It'll be interesting to see if he plays that hand in front of a national television audience.

So achingly close and yet, so achingly far. Sort of a microcosm of the Browns' season.

And they'll have nobody to blame but themselves if they don't make it. A 10-6 record would be quite an achievement for this team. But it very well could turn out to be woulda . . . coulda . . . didn't.

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