CLEVELAND — As the ball floated toward the sideline it would never reach, quarterback Brandon Weeden was spun into the FirstEnergy Stadium turf.
From the seat of his pants he quickly realized what he had just done.
“It was just a boneheaded play,” he said.
That’s one adjective for it.
Weeden tried to flip the ball out of bounds – backhanded – as he was being pressured by Lions tackle C.J. Mosley. He couldn’t get enough mustard on the ball and linebacker DeAndre Levy grabbed the gift along the Detroit sideline.
The Browns’ best chance to salvage an abysmal second half was gone. The Lions added a touchdown for a 31-17 victory that ended Cleveland’s winning streak at three.
The Browns fell to 3-3 and out of first place in the AFC North. They’re tied with Baltimore a game behind Cincinnati, which beat Buffalo in overtime.
“We tasted those last three weeks and it tasted good, man,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “This is one that got away from us, but we clearly don’t think the confidence level is going anywhere.”
The Browns seemed headed to a fourth straight win and sweep of a three-game homestand when they scored 17 straight points in the second quarter to take a 17-7 halftime lead. Then came the second half – and domination by Detroit.
The Lions owned both sides of the ball, scored 24 unanswered and headed back across Lake Erie 4-2 and in a first-place tie in the NFC North.
“They just came out and out-footballed us in the second half offensively as well as defensively,” safety Tashaun Gipson said.
So much went wrong for the Browns in the final 30 minutes, but the signature play of the loss was Weeden’s ill-advised, inexplicable, dumb and disastrous interception with 4:36 left. The Browns trailed 24-17 after a third quarter of 6 yards, but had reached the Detroit 44-yard line after 15- and 18-yard completions to receiver Josh Gordon.
On first-and-10, the Lions’ tackles crossed, Mosley – who spent 2009 with the Browns – got penetration and Weeden cracked. He wanted Gordon on a deep cross but the Lions took it away, he glanced at tight end Jordan Cameron and then toward fullback Chris Ogbonnaya in the flat. He should’ve thrown it.
Instead, he held on, tried to escape, couldn’t turn to make a real throw and did the unthinkable.
“I didn’t want to take a sack there and I just tried to flip it as far as I could over Obi’s head,” Weeden said. “As Norv (Turner, coordinator) said, take a sack and anytime you try underhand stuff, bad things happen.”
Weeden turns the big 3-0 today. He ended 29 with a huge oh-no.
He made his first start since Brian Hoyer’s season-ending knee injury. Weeden, who led a rally against Buffalo last week off the bench, fell to 0-3 as the starter. He went 26-for-43 for 292 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, two sacks and a 76.9 rating.
He had thrown a career-high 111 straight passes without an interception before one in the second quarter intended for Ogbonnaya on a wheel route down the sideline.
“I have all the faith in Brandon,” right guard Shawn Lauvao said. “I think he’s a talented quarterback. I think he has tremendous potential. It’s a team sport. It (stinks) that a lot of the time the blame gets put on the quarterback, but it’s just the nature of the business.”
The loss was about much more than Weeden.
Turner went deep into his playbook in the first half as the Browns gained 250 yards and built their sixth halftime lead in six games. He called an end-around to Travis Benjamin that gained 45 yards and set up the first touchdown, a 4-yard pass to Ogbonnaya, who had a career-high seven catches for 61 yards. He ran rookie tight end MarQueis Gray on the read option out of the Wildcat. He sent Weeden in motion and snapped directly to Ogbonnaya. He lined up reserve tackle Rashad Butler in the backfield.
But in the second half, Turner abandoned the run. After rushing 16 times for 115 yards in the first half – good enough for a season high – the Browns ran five for 11 after halftime.
Coach Rob Chudzinski blamed it on the lack of plays. The Browns had nine offensive snaps in the third quarter – four rushes, five passes – and no first downs. They totaled 73 second-half yards before the key interception.
“They stopped us from converting third downs and making plays and our momentum and rhythm came to a halt,” left guard John Greco said.
The defense, which entered ranked No. 4, was no better. Despite All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson being limited in snaps and effectiveness by a sore knee (three catches, 25 yards, two drops), Detroit exploded in the second half.
Running back Reggie Bush touched the ball seven times for 14 yards in the first half. He jump-started the second-half surge with a 39-yard run off left tackle and an 18-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown. He rushed 10 times for 64 yards in the second half and added five catches for 57 yards.
Rookie tight end Joseph Fauria had three catches – all for touchdowns, each with a different defender in man coverage. He beat reserve safety Johnson Bademosi for 1 yard in the first quarter, linebacker Craig Robertson for 23 in the fourth to put the Lions in front 24-17 and strong safety T.J. Ward for 10 for the insurance score.
Receiver Kris Durham added eight catches for 83 yards, and the Lions converted 6-of-7 third downs in the second half.
“Our mindset was keep them where they are and put our foot on their neck,” Ward said. “We didn’t do that.”
The final piece of the misery was the officiating.
Referee Walt Coleman denied Chudzinski’s challenge of an incompletion down the sideline in which receiver Greg Little appeared to land inbounds for a 25-yard catch on second-and-25 early in the fourth quarter. On the series after the second Weeden pick, with the deficit only seven, linebacker Groves was called for a questionable roughing the passer after an incompletion on third-and-3 at the Cleveland 31.
“The only thing he can do is not hit him, but that’s not how you play football,” linebacker Paul Kruger said. “To make that a game-changer, I don’t think that’s fair.”
The Browns hit the road for games at Green Bay (3-2) and Kansas City (6-0) before returning home. That’s a tough itinerary for a team that had its streak stopped – and then some.
“I don’t think the better team won today,” Kruger said. “I think we’re a very solid group, we have a lot of good things going.
“We’ve got to play a full 60-minute game. That’s where we got in trouble today.”