Until they win two in consecutive weeks, there should be a moratorium in their locker room on suggesting they’re in playoff contention.
Until they snap a 10-game skid against the Ravens, no one should mention closing the gap in the AFC North.
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Until they figure out a way to consistently convert third-and-1 or put together a drive when trailing in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, talk of turning the corner should come to a screeching halt.
The young and excitable Browns, coming off their second victory, talked all week about their talent and how the time was right to get on a roll. How beating Baltimore would make a statement to the rest of the league.
Then they came out Sunday and lost 25-15 in their stadium. They fell behind early, rallied in the middle and crumbled late.
They enter the bye week 2-7 and masters of mismanaged momentum. The two victories have been followed by winnable games against fallible opponents in which a fourth-quarter touchdown might’ve made all the difference.
“That’s been the tale of the season so far,” said linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who played through foot and calf injuries. “We get so close and we start the week off with so much confidence and for whatever reason when the game’s on the line, whether it’s defensively, offensively, we can’t seem to make that play.
“I’m tired of coming up close and not getting over the hump. Guys have to understand if we want to have that feeling we had after last week’s game, it’s not easy.”
The game was decided inside the 20-yard line. The Browns went 0-for-5 in the red zone, while the Ravens (6-2) went 3-for-3. That’s a 22-15 edge for the Ravens, who have won 11 straight in the AFC North and 15 in a row after a loss.
“I have to run harder, we have to make better calls, make sure we pick up all the blocks, catch the ball and make sure we do the right thing because we can’t point fingers at anybody because we’re all down there in the red zone,” said running back Trent Richardson, who posted his third 100-yard game with 105 on 25 carries. “Once you’re in the red zone, you have to score some type of way, you have to get in the end zone.”
The red zone was a giant stop sign for the Cleveland offense. Not only didn’t it reach the end zone, it didn’t get past the 10-yard line.
Quarterback Brandon Weeden’s uneven performance (20-for-37 for 176 yards, two interceptions and a 44.4 rating) carried into the scoring area. He chose not to challenge the Ed Reed-led Ravens zone and was content to dump it short of the first down and settle for Phil Dawson field goals.
Dawson made five — from 32, 28, 29, 33 and 41 yards — to improve to 17-for-17 on the season. He has made 23 straight.
“Unfortunately I had to check it down,” said Weeden, who couldn’t muster a first down after getting the ball with 4:26 left after the Ravens’ winning touchdown and 2-point conversion. “People can boo, they can do whatever. Phil’s a helluva kicker and you can’t force it. They won on those particular plays.”
Cleveland’s only triumph in the red zone turned into one of the day’s biggest defeats. Weeden hit rookie receiver Josh Gordon (two catches, 38 yards and a drop on a long post) on a slant for an 18-yard touchdown, but third-down running back Chris Ogbonnaya was called for an illegal formation. He lined up wide right but shouldn’t have been on the line of scrimmage, because tight end Benjamin Watson was already there. Ogbonnaya tried to back up before the snap but was too late.
“Unfortunately (the officials) said I wasn’t aligned far enough but I thought it was communicated,” he said. “When you have opportunities to score in this league, you have to score.”
Dawson’s fifth field goal gave the Browns a 15-14 lead with 8:48 left. But a Baltimore offense that had gone six straight possessions without a first down dug deep. The Cleveland defense that rebounded from a 14-0 first-quarter hole broke with the game on the line.
Joe Flacco hit receiver Anquan Boldin (five catches, 57 yards) for 21 yards over the middle to get things started. A roughing-the-passer penalty on safety T.J. Ward kicked the Ravens into gear.
Flacco (15-for-24 for 153 yards, touchdown, 94.6 rating) had thrown an incompletion on second-and-8 from the Baltimore 42-yard line when a blitzing Ward tried to tomahawk the ball from Flacco. He was a little late, and referee Jeff Triplette ruled he made contact to the head.
“I pulled up,” Ward said. “I don’t see what was wrong with the hit.
“It just hurt, to know we stopped them for so long and to let them off the hook.”
After a couple of first downs by Ray Rice (25 rushes, 98 yards, TD), the Ravens faced third-and-10 on the 19. Flacco hit receiver Torrey Smith on an in cut short of the first down, but he reversed field and ran past cornerback Joe Haden for the touchdown. A 2-point conversion to a wide-open Boldin made it a seven-point game.
“When he broke inside I was coming down to make sure he didn’t get the first down,” Haden said of Smith. “He spun out on me. I took a bad angle and he made a really good move.”
Defensive tackle Phil Taylor and cornerback Sheldon Brown missed tackles on the first two Baltimore touchdowns.
The Browns had their final shot down seven with 4:26 left. On third-and-4 from the Cleveland 26, Weeden dumped to receiver Greg Little for 2 yards. Coach Pat Shurmur went against his tendency and went for it on fourth down with 3:53 and two timeouts left. Two weeks earlier, he punted on fourth-and-1 from the Indianapolis 41-yard line.
“I wanted to get the first down,” said Shurmur, who burned three timeouts during the game because the play didn’t get called in time. “We had a play that we liked and we didn’t execute it well.
“It will be a fun thing for everyone to talk about this week, just like when we lost the game and I didn’t go for it.”
Weeden, who denied being bothered by a groin injury, looked for Little on a slant but the ball sailed high.
“I was definitely open,” he said. “It’s a pass he hits 100 times over. It just sailed out of his hand.”
The Browns will have two weeks to think about the latest missed chance and try to regroup for the stretch run.
“We were coming off a game where collectively as a team we found a way to win a tough one,” Weeden said. “We had some momentum. Guys were excited.
“Guys are still optimistic, but we have a hard time putting two back-to-back together and I don’t know what the answer is. We’ve got to play better.”