The strength of the San Diego Chargers became unexpectedly vulnerable on Sunday, as the Cleveland Browns spoiled an otherwise perfect season with a 20-16 victory.
Missed tackles, missed assignments and poor communication reared its ugly head, forcing the Chargers offense to shoulder a load it couldn't quite seem to bear.
Rookie running back LaDanian Tomlinson who came to the rescue in each of the previous three games, rushed for his third 100-yard plus performance of the season, but failed to cross the goal line on pivotal possessions, and the Chargers were left settling for field goals instead of increasing a lead on the suddenly upstart Browns.
With the game tied at 10 apiece entering the final quarter, the Chargers faced a first and goal at the Cleveland one-yard line. Unfortunately, three plays later they had lost two-yards, and opted to rely on the foot of Wade Richey to put some points on the board.
San Diego was handed another opportunity on the Browns subsequent possession, when Junior Seau stripped the ball and the Chargers took over on the Cleveland twenty-five yard line.
One minute and thirty seconds later they faced the same predicament, gaining only five yards in three plays they turned to Richey who found the range from 38-yards out, giving San Diego a 16-10 lead.
Having turned either one of those possessions into touchdowns would have given San Diego a comfortable lead, instead it left them dangerously close to a team whose miraculous turnaround has almost mirrored that of the Chargers.
"We certainly had our opportunities," said head coach Mike Riley. "This is the way that a ton of games are played in the NFL. You have to make the plays at the right time, and you cannot lose your opportunities."
The Browns wasted no time capitalizing on their opportunities, scoring on two successive possessions, a 27-yard field goal by Phil Dawson, and on a 19-yard touchdown pass from Tim Couch to Kevin Johnson.
Two possessions – two scores, and the momentum had become the Browns, as they grabbed a 20-16 lead with 1:10 remaining.
Couch, Cleveland's top selection when it re-entered the league in 1999, finished the day with 14-of-27 passes for 203 yards and one touchdown.
"It was do-or-die time for us," Couch said. "We had to get the ball and score."
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