November 26, 2014

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Browns analysis: Better play not enough of a reward

The NFL standings do not include a column for moral victories, only actual wins.

That’s unfortunate because the Browns deserved some sort of reward for how well they played Sunday in a 23-20 overtime loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Coach Eric Mangini’s team exhibited fire, intensity and aggression for all five periods, only to lose when Shayne Graham barely made a 31-yard field goal with 7 seconds left in OT.

“There’s no sugar-coating it: To come this close and lose, it hurts,” Cleveland wide receiver Braylon Edwards said. “We spotted them 14 points right away, but nobody ever quit. The defense was doing a good job and we were moving the ball on offense, just taking what they were giving us.

“To have that (good) feeling get knocked out of you in the end, it really hurts.”

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The sudden nature of the loss would have been painful to any football team, but it was cruel and unusual punishment for the winless Browns.

Cleveland played poorly in its season opener against Minnesota and was flat-out terrible in subsequent losses to Denver and Baltimore. Against the Bengals, though, it looked like a solid squad.

Jerome Harrison didn’t miss a beat filling in for injured running back Jamal Lewis, rookie Mohamed Massaquoi was the best wide receiver on the field, and Shaun Rogers and Joshua Cribbs made game-changing plays on special teams.

Quarterback Derek Anderson even reverted to old form, making just enough good throws to overshadow his bad decisions.

That convergence of positive events should have added up to a victory (or at least, a 20-20 tie), but instead wound up as the Browns’ 10th loss in a row — one shy of their all-time longest skid.

“I give our guys a lot of credit in the sense that it’s easy to come in when you’re winning and work hard and play hard and do all the right things,” said Mangini, who is 0-4 in his first year in charge. “It’s tougher when you’re not, but that’s why it’s so important to stay with it.

“I couldn’t be prouder of how they played and competed through five quarters.”

In order to steal the road win, Cincinnati had to convert fourth-down situations on both of its touchdown drives — highlighted by Carson Palmer’s 2-yard scoring pass to Chad Ochocinco with just 1:55 left in regulation.

But even that wouldn’t have been enough had a gimpy Palmer not scrambled for 15 yards on fourth-and-11 with 1:04 remaining. Graham hooked home the game-winning field goal three plays later, sending another sellout crowd home with nothing to cheer for.

“These rivalry games always seem to come down to the end,” Palmer said. “Even when one team is supposed to be outmatched by the other, they always step up and find a way to make plays. They find a little extra energy, a little extra motivation, and we saw that today.

“Cleveland has lost to four good teams now, but they are going to come around. We’re going to have our hands full later in the season in Cincinnati.”

In the meantime, the Browns have to build on all of the positive things that happened in this edition of the “Battle of Ohio.”

They held a fourth-quarter lead for the first time since Nov. 30, 2008 — eight games and one head coach ago — and forced the Bengals into seven straight three-and-outs over the second and third quarters.

Cleveland also racked up its two longest plays of the season, both on passes to Massaquoi (measuring 30 and 29 yards), and had its top run of the year by Harrison (21 yards).

If the Browns can duplicate that level of execution next week, they stand an excellent chance of winning in Buffalo. But if they don’t, they might not taste victory for another month or more.

“In a city like this that works hard — I don’t think that any other city works this hard — the blue-collar workers in Cleveland expect the football team to work as hard as we did today,” Cribbs said. “Even though we lost, I think the fans are still proud of us.

“I know I’m proud of the way everybody came out and played. We fought right until the end. This is the way we’re capable of playing every week, it’s just a matter of showing everyone that we can do it.”

Contact Brian Dulik at brisports@hotmail.com.