So close, yet so far.
The Browns had a golden opportunity to make a statement Sunday and knock out the bully on their block – inside the bully`s own house, no less.
They got a pair of long kickoff returns from Joshua Cribbs, had two judgment calls by the officials go their way and built a 15-point lead over their archrival.
Cleveland even got the fans at Heinz Field so riled up they booed the Steelers off the field at halftime.
Yet, it still wasn`t enough to win the game.
Battle-tested Pittsburgh exploited the Browns` inexperience when it mattered most and rallied for a 31-28 win.
“We let one get away,“ Browns coach Romeo Crennel lamented. “We were up. If we had played in the second half the way we played in the first, we win the game. We`re disappointed.“
In reality, the Browns didn`t need to match their superb first-half performance to beat the hated Steelers. They only had to play moderately well and not shoot themselves in the foot.
No such luck.
It was a valiant effort by the visitors, but fell in the same column in the standings as their 34-7 opening-day drubbing by Pittsburgh.
“It doesn`t mean anything because we still lost,“ Browns quarterback Derek Anderson said. “That`s why we play the game, to win. I`m proud of the way we fought, but it`s still not a win.
“We put ourselves in a great position and obviously didn`t do enough in the second half to take it home.“
There was plenty of blame to go around.
* Jamal Lewis started the Steelers` comeback by losing a fumble in Browns territory midway through the third quarter. Cleveland held a 21-9 lead and had every ounce of momentum on its side before the miscue.
* Anderson failed to lead the offense to a first down over a 34-minute, 24-second stretch. The drought began in the second quarter and ended with a minute left in the game.
* Willie McGinest, one of the few Browns with big-game experience, failed time and time again to keep Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the pocket.
* Cleveland`s defense allowed Pittsburgh to convert four straight third-down conversions in the fourth. The plays covered 10, 6, 18 and 9 yards and resulted in 15 Steelers points.
* Last but not least, Darnell Dinkins committed a holding penalty on a punt return with 1:04 left. Instead of starting their drive near the Pittsburgh 42, the Browns were pushed back to their own 33. It proved fatal when Phil Dawson`s 52-yard field goal fell just short.
If there is any consolation in defeat, it`s that the Browns refused to point fingers at one another, accepting blame as a team.
“Willie stood up after the game and told everyone, â€˜If you want to blame somebody, blame me,` but a game is never one guy`s fault,“ Cribbs said. “This is a team. We all can point fingers at ourselves because we could have done something better.
“Everybody in the locker room believes that, which is why I`m proud of my teammates and I`m proud to play for the Cleveland Browns.“
As he should be, because the Browns left Pittsburgh just one game out of a wild-card playoff spot.
Catching the Steelers in the AFC North is unlikely after dropping two full games behind, but battling them again in the postseason is realistic.
All Cleveland`s players need to do is look at their remaining schedule – seven very winnable games – to bounce back from what was a disappointing, but far from demoralizing, defeat.
“I don`t think we were uncomfortable at all in this atmosphere today,“ Browns running back Jason Wright said. “Things just didn`t click later in the game. We`ll be all right.“
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brian Dulik: Better showing not good enough for Browns
So close, yet so far.