CLEVELAND — Eight days can be an eternity in the NFL.
Long enough to drop two rivalry games in humiliating fashion, fall out of playoff contention, discourage a fan base and lose another starting quarterback.
The Browns’ week-plus from hell ended Sunday with a 27-11 loss to the Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium and quarterback Jason Campbell dazed and confused with a concussion that knocked him from the game in the third quarter. The Browns (4-7) have lost five of six and would need a miracle finish (5-0 or 4-1 with help) to get a whiff of the postseason.
Only 171 hours earlier, the Browns took the field in Cincinnati in control of their destiny and two wins from owning first place in the AFC North. After losses by a combined 68-31 to their oldest rivals, the Browns are alone in last place.
“Two blowouts. So, nah, we’re not ready (to contend),” safety T.J. Ward said.
The Steelers (5-6) and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (16-1 against Cleveland) are the supreme silencer. They shut up the playoff talk, extinguished hope and emptied a stadium. The frigid fans making the early walk to their cars were staring at another long, cold December.
“We had opportunities. We let them slip through our fingers,” first-year coach Rob Chudzinski said of the two-game skid.
Chudzinski will more than likely be forced to make his fourth quarterback change in 12 games next Sunday when red-hot Jacksonville (two wins in three games after starting 0-8) visits. Campbell left for a play in the second quarter with an aggravation of bruised ribs, then was done for good with 7:46 left in the third quarter.
The Browns trailed 13-3 and faced third-and-7 at the Pittsburgh 39-yard line. Campbell didn’t recognize the corner blitz coming from his left, hung onto the ball too long and cornerback William Gay’s left hand smacked Campbell across the face mask. The ball came loose as Campbell fell, then his helmet banged into the frozen turf.
Safety Will Allen grabbed the ball and returned it 49 yards to the 4-yard line, setting up a Roethlisberger touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders on the next snap.
First, Roethlisberger checked on Campbell, who writhed on the ground before lying there for a couple of minutes. He walked slowly and wobbly to the sideline with the help of trainers, then was disoriented and needed assistance getting into the cart so he could be driven to the locker room.
Chudzinski thought the hit from Gay should’ve been a penalty for contact to the head and expressed his feelings to the officials.
“They didn’t feel that way,” he said. “They said he was hit on the shoulder.”
Weeden, who entered to boos from the home crowd in the first half, returned trailing 20-3. He lost a fumble – one of two forced by safety Troy Polamalu – and had an interception returned 21 yards for a touchdown by Gay in the fourth quarter. Weeden rallied late for 1-yard touchdown to Josh Gordon on a fade into the left corner with 3:13 left.
Gordon never stopped playing and used a seven-catch, 158-yard fourth quarter to put himself into the team’s record book. He tied Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome with 14 catches and passed Newsome with 237 receiving yards. Newsome’s 14 for 191 came against the Jets in 1984.
“Honestly, I don’t really see anything positive,” Gordon said. “The city wanted to see us win, we all wanted to win that game. That would have meant a lot. For me, it was for nothing.”
Weeden is in line to start next week after losing the starting job twice this year. He’s 5-14 as a starter in his two years and went 13-for-30 for 209 yards, a touchdown, an interception and a 64.4 rating against the Steelers.
“If my number is called I’m expected to go out there — reps, no reps, 20 degrees, 80 degrees, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m expected to go out there and manage and get the job done.”
The Browns and Steelers each entered 4-6 and knowing they were playing essentially an elimination game. The Campbell fumble-non-call was critical, but the game turned in a two-minute, 26-second stretch late in the first half.
Receiver Antonio Brown (six catches, 92 yards) got behind cornerback Joe Haden for a 41-yard touchdown from Roethlisberger to break a tie at 3. Haden, who followed his best game with his worst, stopped because he thought Brown was running a comeback. Wrong.
The Browns were moving the ball on their next drive when Polamalu stood up fullback Chris Ogbonnaya, ripped the ball from his grip as he was going to the ground and recovered at the Pittsburgh 46. Shaun Suisham made a 32-yard field goal with seven seconds left for a 13-3 halftime lead.
The Steelers are 25-5 against the Browns since 1999 and have won six of seven, 13 of 15 and 24 of 27. They’re 12-3 on the lakefront since Cleveland’s return to the NFL.
As is usually the case, the Steelers – who started the year 0-4 — made the big plays at the critical moments and the Browns didn’t. When the outcome had yet to be decided, the Browns had promising drives end with two punts, two turnovers and a Billy Cundiff missed field goal from 46 yards that was wide left by about 10 yards.
The Browns committed four turnovers (eight in the last two games) without forcing one. Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked, while Cleveland’s quarterbacks went down five times.
For the second straight week, the game got away from the Browns.
“It does go quick,” Ward said. “Turnovers. turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. That’s it.”
The defense could dismiss at least two of the touchdowns to turnovers, and the frustration on that side of the ball was obvious. Nose tackle Phil Taylor refused to talk — “I’m not answering no questions today,” he said — and linebacker and captain D’Qwell Jackson left without talking to reporters.
“All we can do is play defense,” Ward said. “I’m tired of losing, that’s it. Tired of losing — in this manner. It’s a little bit different if you go to the wire and you’re fighting the whole game and you have an opportunity to win the game at the end. But we’re out of the game in the fourth quarter. Nobody wants to play like that.”
Not only did the Browns waste a chance to gain ground in the chase for the second AFC wild-card spot, they blew an opportunity to beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh for the first time in the same season and sweep the North at home.
Chudzinski admitted the meltdowns in the most meaningful games in years showed his young team isn’t where it needs to be.
“We’re not getting those results,” he said. “We’ll take that step; it’s going to happen. I told these guys the future is going to be bright.
“Tomorrow’s going to be a better day, and that’s the way we’re approaching it and I believe that. I truly believe that.”