CLEVELAND — With the AFC North title to be decided on the shores of Lake Erie in the season’s last two weeks, coach Eric Mangini had the chance, perhaps futile, to make a final stand. To show his Browns could not only compete with division powers Baltimore and Pittsburgh, but emerge victorious.
It didn’t happen Sunday.
The Ravens (11-4) clinched their third straight trip to the playoffs with a 20-10 win. The Browns fell to 5-10 to assure their ninth double-digit-loss finish in 12 seasons since returning in 1999. The Ravens secured a wild-card spot and need a win next week against the Bengals plus a Browns upset of the Steelers to win the AFC North.
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The only question left to be answered for the Browns is whether Mangini will be retained for a third season. No decision will come from president Mike Holmgren until after the season, but the odds get longer by the Sunday.
“You’re judged in this league by how many wins you produce,” linebacker David Bowens said. “That’s how people hold you accountable. We just haven’t been able to win the close games.
“What we have to do is figure out what the formula is. What’s it going to take?”
The Browns, who finished 2009 with four straight victories to go 5-11, have lost three straight to turn a season of progress into the same old, same old. Mangini blamed the latest setback on four turnovers, but a couple of coaching decisions contributed and might’ve had Holmgren flipping through the list of contacts in his cell phone.
In a span of less than three minutes of game time, not including halftime, the Browns went from threatening to take the lead to down 10 and desperate.
The Browns reached the Baltimore 24-yard line on the play following the two-minute warning with a 28-yard completion to running back Mike Bell, who split time with an injured Peyton Hillis (knee, ribs). After a 1-yard Bell run, Mangini elected to not take a timeout and the next snap didn’t happen for 45 seconds.
The Browns picked up a first down at the 13-yard line with 17 seconds left and only had time for two passes into the end zone before a 30-yard Phil Dawson field goal with six seconds left.
Rookie quarterback Colt McCoy missed Brian Robiskie in the corner of the end zone on second down. Mangini took two unused and worthless timeouts into the locker room.
“Get the points that are available from our perspective and not give their offense, which is a really good offense, a chance to go down and score,” Mangini said.
“We settled for three, but our goal was clearly to get six,” tight end Benjamin Watson said.
The Ravens lead had been cut to 13-10, but a chance for a touchdown had slipped away. Mangini tried to get it back with an onside kick to open the third quarter.
It didn’t happen.
Dawson’s kick toward the left sideline was too slow and horizontal and didn’t travel the requisite 10 yards. Rookie cornerback Joe Haden could only watch as the ball bounced harmlessly out of bounds. Mangini’s thinking was correct — Cary Williams was the Raven closest to the sideline and had turned to run downfield — but the execution was flawed.
“It was a great call. When you’re playing to win, that’s the kind of call you make,” said Dawson, who’s 0-for-2 on onside kicks. “The ball just didn’t bounce the way I wanted it to, that’s bad execution on my part.”
The Ravens took over on the 38-yard line and scored three plays later on a 22-yard Joe Flacco (12-for-19 for 102 yards, two touchdowns, an interception, 90.2 rating) pass to Derrick Mason despite repeated pass interference on cornerback Sheldon Brown. The outcome was never in doubt again.
Baltimore’s two touchdowns came courtesy of great field position handed to it by the Browns. Flacco’s 15-yard pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh behind Brown and safety Abram Elam came three plays after Cleveland receiver Mohamed Massaquoi was stripped as he tried to fight for extra yardage. The Ravens got the ball at the Cleveland 20-yard line.
“Field position was a big deal,” Bowens said. “I think our defense did a pretty decent job considering. But overall we have to try to get the ball back in those situations and give our offense another chance at scoring.”
McCoy was able to move the offense — 7-for-11 on third down — but threw three interceptions, all intended for Massaquoi, who accounted for Cleveland’s only touchdown on a 29-yard pass to Robiskie on a trick play. McCoy went 15-for-29 for 149 yards, three interceptions and a 27.0 rating.
He and the coaches talked all week about being wary of Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed, but he got two interceptions and sent Hillis to the sideline with a helmet to his back on the game’s second snap.
McCoy said he didn’t see Reed on the first pick, and simply overthrew Massaquoi near the end zone with 4:51 left as the Browns tried to rally. The other interception was a deep sideline route thrown inside of Massaquoi against good coverage on the opening possession.
“Turnovers killed us today and most of it is on me,” McCoy said. “I’ve got to fix that, I’ve got to take care of the ball, and I’ve got to know where Ed Reed is. He read my eyes the whole game and made plays.”
Elyria native and Ravens safety Haruki Nakamura was a blitzer on two of the picks, hitting McCoy after he released on Reed’s first interception. The Ravens have won six straight in the series, and Flacco is 6-0 against the Browns.
Cleveland’s offense was done in by the turnovers, a controversial pass interference call on Robiskie that negated a long reception and the lack of a full-time Hillis. He carried 12 times for 35 yards, and Bell added seven rushes for 27 yards.
“The other team makes adjustments, we just have to make better adjustments,” receiver Joshua Cribbs said. “If I knew the reason, I’d have a headset on.”
The Browns were unable to make Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis eat his words after he predicted they’d keep Hillis from duplicating his big day in September. Left guard Eric Steinbach imitated Lewis’ famous pregame dance during introductions.
“He can say whatever he wants,” Thomas said of Lewis. “I think guys definitely made note of it. I don’t think he made much noise out there today.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out it’s a lack of respect.”
Mangini fell to 10-21 in his two years, 2-9 in the division. He trudged off the field without an escort from security.
It looked like a metaphor for his job security.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or email@example.com.