Just as the Cleveland Browns appeared poised to rip a divisional win away from the Baltimore Ravens, the wheels fell off the wagon and the season is in dire straits. In losing to the Ravens at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday 37-27, the Browns only can look in the mirror and wonder where it all has gone wrong.
After a rough start to the game, the Browns offense came to life and moved the ball well in the second quarter and into the third. Against the vaunted Baltimore Ravens defense, QB Derek Anderson made some fantastic throws and better reads.
Much like he has been throughout his career In Cleveland, Anderson was bailed out by Braylon Edwards on an end-zone toss into coverage, which gave the Browns their first lead in the game, 20-13. This ill-advised but successful attempt was only the beginning of what quickly became a pattern of inaccuracy and missed opportunity.
When needed the most in the fourth quarter, Anderson was a paltry 2 of 11 for 18 yards and an interception - which perfectly illustrates the wild inconsistency of the QB and this Cleveland offense to date.
More troubling than the loss was the manner in which the Browns caved in to a Baltimore team that was on the ropes midway through the third quarter. In recent weeks, the Browns defense lived life on the edge – the blitzing and single coverage on receivers was instrumental in the success of the defense.
Not viewed as a significant offensive threat, the Ravens offense was efficient, productive and disciplined. Systematically, they picked apart the Browns defense – not only on the ground, but through the air where the Browns had been opportunistic and successful.
This bend-but-don't-break defensive philosophy remained effective for the Browns until late in the third quarter when the Ravens, led by two rookies in the offensive backfield, came at the Browns defense relentlessly.
Baltimore QB Joe Flacco and RB Ray Rice refused to fold as the Browns charged out to a 27-13 lead. Poised and confident in the pocket, Flacco picked apart a Cleveland pass defense which has been solid, but susceptible against the Ravens offense in the first half.
Three plays in this game demonstrated the type of season it has been for the Browns, as well as how well-coached and competitive the Ravens have become under first-year head coach John Harbaugh: a touchdown pass by Flacco, a 60-yard scamper by Rice and a dropped deep ball by Edwards.
Following a methodical drive to pull the Ravens within seven points, 27-20, the Browns offense went three and out and the plays of consequence mentioned above, which sealed the Browns fate, were soon to emerge.
Yamon Figures returned Dave Zastudil's 38-yard punt 23 yards to the Cleveland 42 yard line. Flacco connected on a 14 yard completion to Mark Clayton; then in the hurry-up offense, Flacco spotted the Browns in man coverage, without over-the-top support, and threw a perfect pass to WR Derrick Mason. Cornerback Eric Wright, out of position on the play, dove at the feet of a sprinting Mason to no avail as the Ravens deadlocked the score at 27-27.
A suddenly conservative Cleveland coaching staff called two rushes which gained minimal yardage, again putting the offense in a third and long situation. Anderson threw a picture-perfect pass to Edwards deep down field. Edwards, as has been a common sight in the 2008 season, dropped a pass which could have put the Browns up 34-27.
Following a series of punts, a Baltimore rookie would again make a tiring Cleveland defense pay dearly. Rice took a handoff, sprinted off guard – leaving LB D'Qwell Jackson standing in quick-sand – as he scampered to the two-yard line. The Cleveland defense would rise to the occasion and force the Ravens to settle for a field-goal, but the damage had already been done as the Ravens took a 30-27 lead thanks in no small part to the long run by the rookie.
Making matters worse, the Cleveland offense climbed into a shell after taking a 27-13 lead midway through the third quarter. Poor decisions, poorly thrown passes and no semblance of a rushing game muddled what could have been an ever-important divisional win.
When OLB Terrell Suggs intercepted an Anderson pass and took it the distance late in the fourth quarter, the game -- as well as the fate of the Browns season --was sealed. Unless you believe in miracles – and of course IF the QB and WR leading this offense could have made one more play.
The chants of "Brady, Brady, Brady" along the taunting boo's came raining down from the stands and saluted the team as they walked dejectedly off the playing field -- once again a loser.