CINCINNATI — Coach Eric Mangini stood alone on the sideline with his arms crossed in a mixture of disgust and disappointment.
He had discarded the all-important headset because it no longer served a purpose. He had no choice but to wait for Carson Palmer to kneel three times to cap the Browns’ 19-17 loss Sunday to the Bengals.
When the formalities were over, Mangini stopped for his handshake with Marvin Lewis — another coach expected to be looking for work in two weeks — then walked slowly off the Paul Brown Stadium turf with his head down.
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“It’s disappointing because you want to be able to continue to play,” Mangini said. “You’re at the mercy of the kneel-down.”
Mangini’s at the mercy of president Mike Holmgren, who will decide if he returns after the season ends Jan. 2. Mangini saved his job last season with a finishing four-game winning streak. He might’ve just lost it with back-to-back losses to teams that entered with two wins.
The Bengals (3-11) snapped a 10-game losing streak that began with a loss to the Browns on Oct. 3. The 2-10 Bills beat the Browns 13-6 last week. A one-point win over one-win Carolina started the regression into sub-mediocrity.
“It’s tough to lose to anybody, regardless of how many wins they have,” safety T.J. Ward said.
“There’s no game that you can go into with the expectation of showing up and expecting the other team to not give it their best shot,” Mangini said.
Cleveland is 5-9, and finishing with a better record than last year (5-11) looks less likely by the week. The Browns end with home games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, co-leaders in the AFC North.
Mangini prides himself on building a team that can run and stop the run. The flourish last season was only possible because the Browns improved in both areas. He can no longer count on either aspect.
Cedric Benson rushed 31 times for 150 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown in which he wasn’t touched. The Bengals ran 45 times — including the first eight plays on a nine-play third-quarter field-goal drive — for 188 yards.
The Browns countered with 14 rushes by Peyton Hillis for 59 yards. When he was needed on a third-and-1 from the 5-yard line to open the fourth quarter, Hillis was stood up for no gain.
Mangini called for a 23-yard Phil Dawson field goal to cut the deficit to 16-10, but Cincinnati quickly answered with Clint Stitser’s fourth field goal. It proved the difference after Brian Robiskie’s 46-yard touchdown catch with 2:13 left.
“You’ve got to win games like this,” said quarterback Colt McCoy, who returned after missing three games with an ankle injury. “It’s our division — you’ve got to get hyped up. I thought early on we lacked a little bit of energy, we lacked a little bit of intensity. And that stems from me, that stems from the older guys on this team and it stems from all of us coming together and really playing with a lot of energy and a lot of focus.”
The lack of opportunities for Hillis can be blamed on another poor showing on third down. The Browns converted just two for eight, making them 6-for-32 over the last three weeks.
The offense couldn’t sustain the momentum gained from a beautiful 20-yard touchdown pass from McCoy to backup tight end Robert Royal on the opening possession. The Browns used a formation rarely, if ever, seen in the NFL, as tackles John St. Clair and Joe Thomas lined up outside the hashes, leaving just three linemen in front of McCoy (19-for-25, 243 yards, two touchdowns, 132.6 rating).
Royal was lined up next to Thomas with Joshua Cribbs behind them, and ran straight down the sideline. He made a diving catch of a well-thrown pass.
The Browns didn’t score again until the fourth quarter.
“You can’t get into the flow of things. You don’t establish yourself,” Hillis said. “The whole team has to be involved and motivated. We have to get to that point. We’re so off-and-on through the whole game.”
While the offense’s lack of consistency and production was frustrating, the defense’s failure to stop the run was demoralizing.
The Bengals lost receiver Terrell Owens to a knee injury in the first quarter — he’s done for the season with a torn meniscus — and Chad Ochocinco, the other starter, was slowed by an ankle injury. So they turned to Benson to pound the Browns into submission.
“In my mind, we should be able to stop the run and run the ball effectively, regardless of who we play,” Mangini said. “That’s my expectation, and that should be all of our expectations, because it’s the nature of the division that we play in and weather that we play in.”
The Browns gave up runs inside and outside as Benson stutter-stepped behind the line as he chose a hole. He was particularly effective off tackle. The linemen were handled at the point of attack, the linebackers failed to penetrate and cornerback Joe Haden missed numerous tackles on sweeps.
“They ran it everywhere,” outside linebacker Matt Roth said. “We broke down in a lot of areas.”
The inability to stop the run all day led to Mangini’s decision to onside kick with 2:13 left down two points with two timeouts. He could’ve kicked it deep, but he didn’t trust the defense to prevent the one first down Cincinnati needed to guarantee the win. He was proved right after the Bengals recovered Dawson’s dribbler down the middle.
“You know they’re trying to run out the clock, you gotta stop them regardless,” Roth said. “That’s just them lining up and saying let’s play big-boy football.”
The most disappointing aspect for Mangini might be that the team knew he needed a win, yet laid another egg.
“It’s a close team. We respect each other, we respect the coaches,” Roth said. “We’re not giving up on the season. We don’t know that future, we just gotta pretend like it’s not even there.”
As Mangini left the locker room rolling his luggage nearly an hour after the game, he was still frowning. There’s no use in pretending.
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