The razor-thin playoff hopes? Vanished.
The growing support for coach Pat Shurmur and rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden? Mostly evaporated, if not gone entirely.
The red-hot Redskins sent the Browns crashing back to earth with a 38-21 win Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
The Browns seemed destined for their fourth straight win and another week of relevance when news broke Saturday night that Redskins phenom Robert Griffin III wasn’t going to start with a sprained knee. But it just made the lopsided defeat feel even worse.
Kirk Cousins, in his first NFL start, rebounded from a slow start and an early interception to go 26-for-37 for 329 yards – surpassing Griffin’s high mark — two touchdowns, an interception and a 104.4 rating. The Redskins have won five straight to improve to 8-6 and take over first place in the NFC East.
“He ran the offense like RGIII would run it,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “He’s a really good quarterback. The only reason he’s not playing is because RGIII is there.”
All the positive vibes and forward momentum built in the three-game winning streak ceased with two costly third-quarter interceptions by Brandon Weeden and the inability to stop the Redskins’ bread-and-butter play-action passes.
The Browns fell to 5-9 and out of the playoff chase they had never really entered. They finished the home schedule 4-4, wasting an opportunity to finish above .500 for just the second time since returning in 1999 (7-1 in 2007). The calls for stability within the organization are nowhere near as loud as they were last week.
“It’s upsetting,” said Weeden, who was outplayed by Cousins, who has 13 fewer starts and was drafted three rounds later. “Obviously as players we wanted to give our fans a better final game at home, give them something to cheer about and keep this momentum rolling we’ve had the last few weeks.”
Cousins, a fourth-round pick, benefited greatly from the game plan of coach Mike Shanahan and his son Kyle, the offensive coordinator. They called several play-action passes off their patented stretch handoffs, freezing the defense and allowing receivers to run open.
“Coach Shanahan put him in a great spot,” he said. “They tailored it to what he does well.
“Whoever they put back there at quarterback, they’re going to be successful. They’re going to have their plays where they’re successful.”
Weeden went 21-for-35 for 244 yards, two sacks, a touchdown, two interceptions and a 66.8 rating. He acknowledged he didn’t play well throughout, but also blamed the play selection for his league-high 21 batted balls that rose with four Sunday. He said the shallow crosses and three-step drops common to the West Coast Offense leave little room for him to operate. And he doesn’t know how to fix the problem.
“I have no idea. I don’t have an answer for you,” he said.
Weeden wasn’t alone in questioning the coaching staff on a day when the Browns didn’t look comfortable on either side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Dick Jauron never found the antidote for the bootleg passes off play-action, and the offense never found a rhythm.
“The game plan we had at the beginning of the game, I think we should’ve stuck with it,” said running back Trent Richardson, who carried twice after halftime.
He said the early plan called for inside runs, draws and play-action.
“And when we did do it, it worked,” he said. “So we got away from it, and the outcome comes as an L.”
Richardson finished with 28 yards on 11 carries for a 2.5 average. It’s the second straight week he’s been below 3.
He broke Jim Brown’s team rookie record with his 10th rushing touchdown, a 6-yarder in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead following a 37-yard T.J. Ward interception return. Richardson added a 1-yarder at the end of the second quarter for a 14-10 lead.
The game turned in the third quarter.
The Browns won the coin toss and deferred, so they opened the second half with the ball. After a 2-yard gain by Richardson, Weeden was intercepted by leaping linebacker Rob Jackson. Weeden saw receiver Greg Little come free on a crossing route, but didn’t see Jackson drop in coverage.
The Redskins quickly converted the mistake into a touchdown and a 17-14 lead.
“That’s the most important series of the ballgame and we throw a pick,” linebacker and captain D’Qwell Jackson said. “You can’t turn the ball over like that. Then we’ve got to keep them out of the end zone.”
After a three-and-out by Cleveland and another poor punt by Reggie Hodges, Washington scurried down the field to take a 24-14 lead. Leonard Hankerson caught a 2-yard touchdown when Cousins beat the blitz. Hankerson had two catches – touchdowns of 54 and 2 yards.
The Browns appeared to be making a last stand at the end of the third quarter. Weeden hit Little for 12 yards and tight end Jordan Cameron for 28. But on first-and-10 from the Washington 43, linebacker London Fletcher, a Cleveland native, intercepted Weeden.
Little came free on a deep crossing route, but Weeden was late going to him. By the time he did, he was hit on the elbow and the ball didn’t have enough strength behind it.
The Redskins turned the second pick into seven more points and a 31-14 lead.
“Obviously I didn’t play well enough for us to win,” Weeden said. “I didn’t play well for the most part throughout. I’m not losing any confidence over it, because I felt like I’m still going in the right direction.
“You just can’t turn it over. You have to get first downs, and that’s my job. Didn’t do a good enough job of it today.”
As it so often happens in the NFL, the game came down to coaching and quarterbacking. The Redskins had the edge in both departments and walked away with their winning streak and playoff hopes intact.
“I said to my dad last night, ‘It’s either going to be the highest of highs or the lowest of lows … there’s not going to be much in between,’” Cousins said. “We’re certainly feeling the highs right now. It’s a game that I’ll remember for a long time. If I die tomorrow, I can say I started a game in the NFL and we won.”
The Browns staggered out of Cleveland Browns Stadium for the final time this season. They have two weeks left to show the streak wasn’t a mirage, finish strong and make a case to keep Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert.
Owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner will decide their fates after the finale Dec. 30. Until then, uncertainty reigns inside team headquarters.
“The only certain thing is we do have a job and we have to do the best we can to keep those seats in that building,” Jackson said.
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