CLEVELAND — Peyton Hillis, the engine that drives the running game, rode miles on the stationary bike to get loose, but his pulled quadriceps didn’t cooperate and he never got into a rhythm running the ball. He was in and out of the lineup more than a career criminal.
Seneca Wallace stood stationary on the sideline, knowing his sprained right ankle wouldn’t allow him back in the game. His nearly perfect first half was a distant memory, erased by the pain and the knowledge he’d likely be out for a while.
Jake Delhomme, forced into the lineup at least a week earlier than planned by Wallace’s injury, hobbled in and out of the huddle on his bad ankle. He couldn’t scramble to his left and was a sitting duck for the aggressive Falcons (4-1) pass rush.
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The Browns were battered before they were beaten Sunday. Despite a valiant effort from several banged-up individuals, the Browns fell 20-10. They failed to build off a win the previous week and fell to 1-4.
“It’s just one of those things where you have to overcome and, with our injuries, it was harder,” said Hillis, dragging his right leg in faded jeans and cowboy boots. “But, no, not at all, it wasn’t impossible.”
The Browns may spend today scouring the streets for a quarterback. Untested rookie Colt McCoy is the only healthy one on the roster. Former Brown Brett Ratliff is on the Patriots practice squad and may be an option.
Delhomme said he had to wait for the swelling to go down to know if he derailed his comeback by playing. Wallace said an X-ray was negative but was scheduled for more tests today. He was struggling to walk in the locker room an hour after the game.
Next on the schedule: a trip to Pittsburgh to face its fifthranked defense. “We’re going to show up on Sunday still ready to play, period,” receiver Joshua Cribbs said. “There’s no end in our fight.”
The Browns refused to blame the injuries for the loss. And the fact is they trailed only 13-10 and had the ball at the Cleveland 47-yard line with four minutes left in the game.
Delhomme knew the thirddown blitz was coming and saw fullback Lawrence Vickers break open in the flat for what likely would’ve been a firstdown completion. Defensive end Kroy Biermann was unblocked and came right at Delhomme. Biermann leaped, batted the ball, dived and caught it.
If that weren’t enough, he got up and rumbled into the end zone for a 31-yard interception return and a 20-10 lead that proved insurmountable given the state of the Cleveland offense.
“It was a work of art,” Falcons running back Michael Turner said.
Biermman appeared to get both arms under the ball, and Browns coach Eric Mangini took the advice of replay adviser Dick McKenzie and didn’t challenge.
“It was kinda a fluke,” Cribbs said. “It just wasn’t our day. Because a batted-ball interception, I mean, come on.”
While Biermann made a play he’ll never forget, Browns Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas had a game he won’t want to remember. Pass-rush specialist John Abraham beat him for two sacks, and pushed him backward into Delhomme to cause an interception that sealed the victory with 1:50 left. Wallace was hurt on the second sack when Abraham beat Thomas around the edge and landed on Wallace’s leg. Delhomme’s high ankle sprain in the opening loss to Tampa Bay came when Stylez G. White, Thomas’ man, hit him in the leg as he threw an interception. A team with such a small margin for error can’t win when one of its best players fails to live up to expectations.
“In the NFL sometimes you have good days, sometimes you have bad days,” said Thomas, after a long stint in the training room. “It wasn’t my best day.”
The Browns led 13-10 midway through the third quarter thanks to a strong first half by Wallace, a great catch by Hillis and a defensive effort that confused Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Browns offensive coordaintor Brian Daboll caught the Falcons off-guard with five straight throws in the second quarter for the only touchdown drive. Wallace went 11-for-15 for 139 yards, a touchdown and a 124.0 rating, including a 19-yard touchdown to Hillis down the left sideline. The 250-pounder tipped the overthrown ball to himself with his left hand, then grabbed the top end of the ball with both hands. He limped to the sideline.
“He made a great catch,” Wallace said. “He made a better catch than I made a throw.” Things quickly turned sour.
Wallace’s injury came on what looked like a promising two-minute drill to end the first half, and the running game never got going. Hillis ran 10 times for 28 yards, Jerome Harrison six for 6 and the team totaled 48. Hillis had rushed for 246 the previous two weeks.
Turner carried 19 times for 140 yards (7.4 average), including a 55-yarder, and the Falcons totaled 165 yards on the ground.
“What we need to be able to do is run the ball more effectively and consistently week in and week out and stop the run,” Mangini said.
The Browns led 10-6 with 9:57 left in the third quarter after a 19-yard Phil Dawson field goal — his 234th with the team, tying Lou Groza’s record. Delhomme almost threw an interception in the end zone on the drive and fumbled a snap on third-and-goal from the 2.
Wallace’s one-legged limp off the field was faster than Delhomme’s two-legged scrambles.
“Me trotting out there or hobbling out there, that’s blood in the water for a lot of those guys, let’s be honest,” Delhomme said of the Falcons defense.
Ryan (16-for-28 for 187 yards, 89.4 rating) made his biggest throw to put the Falcons back in front in the third quarter. He hit Roddy White on a 45-yard post behind cornerback Sheldon Brown, who returned that play from a shoulder injury.
“We saw the guy leave the field,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “You’re always doing your due diligence in knowing who is in the game and who is not in the game.”
The Browns had their chance to match, but Delhomme barely overthrew a diving Cribbs on a post that hit his fingertips. On a day like Sunday, when everything seemed to be going against them, one huge play could’ve made the difference.
Instead, the injuries and pain seemed worse as the sun set on another loss.
“You’ve got to fight through adversity. Injuries are part of the game,” tight end Benjamin Watson said. “Every team goes through stuff like this. We have to be resilient, have to fight back.”
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