BEREA — Great teams rise to the occasion. The Browns fell flat.
“That’s the hardest thing to try and get over is knowing that you had a great opportunity, especially being able to play for something this late in the year,” receiver Davone Bess said.
The Browns survived a turbulent flight Sunday night from Cincinnati and returned to work Monday to watch film of the 41-20 debacle against the Bengals. The second quarter should be filed in the horror section.
The Browns (4-6) gave up 31 straight points to fall 2½ games behind Cincinnati (7-4) in the AFC North. Cleveland could’ve closed the gap to a half-game for the first time this late in the season since 2007, but came up small in the big moment.
A tipped interception thrown by Jason Campbell led to a Bengals touchdown and started the runaway train. A deflected Spencer Lanning punt set up another touchdown. Then Lanning had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown. Only to be followed by running back Chris Ogbonnaya’s fumble that was returned for a score.
The special teams breakdowns were the most glaring, but the defense gave up touchdowns rather than field goals and the offense stopped scoring after settling for two short first-quarter field goals.
“I’m disappointed in our performance as a team,” coach Rob Chudzinski said. “We simply had too many critical mistakes and critical errors. The game just got away from us.
“We have to play better in all phases. Our veterans have to play better. Our young guys have to play better. And it needs to happen right away.”
The Browns have six games left and need a string of wins to remain on the fringe of the playoff discussion. They’ve lost four of five, yet confidence was growing before the trip to Cincinnati.
“It was one game,” Chudzinski said. “There’s a lot still out in front of us. I’m confident our guys will respond. We’re a very close team and these guys will continue to fight for each other and compete.”
The Browns took some solace in holding the Bengals to 224 yards, and the improbability of the string of unusual plays repeating itself.
“It was a lot of things that happened that are atypical,” Chudzinski said. “So it was less about a snowball.”
“There’s just some bad luck in that game,” outside linebacker Paul Kruger said.
To improve their luck, the Browns will need a better performance from Campbell. After posting 100-plus passer ratings in his first two starts, he went 27-for-56 for 248 yards, a touchdown, three interceptions and a 44.3 rating.
“You’re not always going to play great every game,” Chudzinski said. “I thought he played particularly well the other two games. He’s the first one to say he needs to do better. As I’ve said many times before, the key to quarterback and that position is how guys bounce back when they’re having some adversity or don’t play as well as they would have liked.”
Campbell missed several throws and didn’t scramble once after hurting the Chiefs and Ravens with his legs. He declined to answer Sunday when asked if his bruised ribs bothered him.
“He said they were fine, didn’t affect him,” Chudzinski said.
Campbell also seemed hesitant to throw downfield. He had the beautiful 74-yard touchdown pass to Josh Gordon, but the majority of his attempts were checkdowns.
“At times there was good coverage,” Chudzinski said. “At times some of the protection broke down so Jason had to get rid of it early. At times he hurried through his progressions and/or didn’t see it downfield.”
Campbell was most upset with the missed opportunities in the red zone in the first quarter and blamed himself. The Browns reached the 1- and 10-yard line but kicked two field goals. Instead of leading 21-0 after Joe Haden’s interception return for a touchdown, they were up 13-0.
“We need to score touchdowns when we’re down there,” tight end Jordan Cameron said. “Those opportunities don’t always arise and when they do arise we need to really capitalize.”
Cameron and receiver Greg Little were open on consecutive plays on the first field-goal drive. Campbell didn’t see Cameron in time as he rolled right, and defensive end Michael Johnson batted down the pass to Little.
“We took steps backwards,” Bess said of the offense.
Chudzinski was asked if the loss in the critical game was a missed chance or a growing moment.
“Probably both. It was an important opportunity for us, and we didn’t play the way that we were capable of playing and weren’t able to get it done,” he said. “It’s important that we learned from this and when we have an opportunity again, which we will in the future, that this opportunity will be something that guys will be able to draw from and help us in the future.”
The challenge now is to put the loss in the past. As bad as it was, the devastation gets multiplied if the Browns lose to the Steelers at home Sunday.
“That’s the positive about this locker room,” Bess said. “We have the resiliency of bouncing back and guys come to work, so we’ll come to work Wednesday ready to go for Steelers Week.”
Bess is new to the Cleveland-Pittsburgh rivalry, but is excited for his first taste.
“Absolutely, that’s all I’ve been hearing since I got up here,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for us, same record as us. They’re actually playing good football right now and it’s going to be one heckuva challenge.”