FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — After the Browns had played their best football of the season for 57 minutes and 21 seconds Sunday, everything had to go wrong for them to fall short of an improbable and impressive upset of the Patriots in Gillette Stadium.
Everything went wrong.
Tom Brady threw two touchdown passes in the last 61 seconds, the Patriots recovered an onside kick that would’ve ended the game and the officials called two controversial and crucial penalties that helped Brady’s winning drive.
If that weren’t enough, the final play was a 58-yard field-goal attempt by Cleveland’s Billy Cundiff that flew true but landed a couple of yards short.
The Browns didn’t trail until 31 seconds left, but lost 27-26. They’ve lost four in a row and seven of eight to fall to 4-9. The Patriots improved to 10-3.
“I’m sick about the outcome of the game,” said coach Rob Chudzinski, who again applauded his team’s effort.
Receiver Josh Gordon (seven catches, 151 yards, touchdown) set two more records. He has 1,400 yards in 11 games to pass Braylon Edwards’ franchise record for a season (1,289), and his 774 yards in the last four games passed the NFL record held by Detroit’s Calvin Johnson. Jason Campbell threw for a career-high 391 yards and three touchdowns in his return from a concussion.
The performances were overshadowed by a crazy final three minutes where each pivotal play trumped the previous one.
Campbell threw to tight end Jordan Cameron (nine catches, 121 yards, touchdown) for a 4-yard score and a 26-14 lead with 2:39 left. Then the ridiculous – perhaps predictable in Browns Town – happened.
Brady, who had a 0.0 rating in the first quarter and didn’t manage a touchdown until six seconds left in the third quarter, went to work, methodically marching against a defense designed to prevent a big play. His 2-yard touchdown to Julian Edelman with 1:01 left was capped by an unnecessary roughness penalty on rookie safety Jordan Poyer that moved the ensuing kickoff to midfield.
“He hit him directly with his shoulder in the chest,” Haden said. “It didn’t look like a foul at all.”
The Patriots, with no timeouts left, put six guys on the right of the kicker and four on the left for the onside kick. Stephen Gostkowski dribbled the ball down the middle – where the Browns had no one — and the ball bounced off the stomach of Cleveland running back Fozzy Whittaker. Kyle Arrington recovered the first successful onside kick for New England since Jan. 1, 1995, in a playoff game against Cleveland and then-coach Bill Belichick.
The ball had yet to travel the requisite 10 yards when Whittaker touched it. He said he thought the ball touched Gostkowski before the 40-yard line, which would’ve given the Browns the ball and the win.
“We were outnumbered on that play,” Whittaker said. “I thought it got hit early. That’s the only reason why I just dove in there trying to hit somebody.”
Safety Tashaun Gipson said he knew better than to touch the ball before it went 10 yards. He and Whittaker rushed to the middle from the left side of the defense.
“The ball didn’t cross 10 yards, so I’m not going to go in there and jeopardize the team by trying to save the day, I’m just going to do my job,” Gipson said.
The defense that gave up the losing touchdown a week earlier to Jacksonville did it again. Brady took over on the 40, threw a 10-yard pass to Danny Amendola, then went deep for receiver Josh Boyce down the right side. The ball went through Boyce’s hands in the end zone, but the field judge called pass interference on rookie Leon McFadden, who was the No. 3 cornerback for the first time.
With the ball placed at the 1, Brady threw a touchdown to Amendola, who beat cornerback Buster Skrine on an out route.
“Personally, I don’t think it was pass interference,” McFadden said.
He had company.
“I hate that a game has to come down to a call like that,” said outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard, who had one of the four sacks of Brady. “In basketball in a situation like that he wouldn’t get a call.”
The Patriots improved to an NFL-best 23-2 at home in December since the stadium opened in 2002. Sheard thinks the location of the game influenced the calls.
“That’s what it seemed like,” he said. “For it to come down to a call, it’s just frustrating.”
Despite the demoralizing two minutes, the plucky Browns weren’t done. Campbell (116.8 rating) completed three passes before spiking the ball to stop the clock with a second left. Cundiff, who didn’t attempt the final kickoff because of a calf cramp, hurried onto the field. Chudzinski said his range was 52 or 53 yards, but 58 was worth a shot in that situation.
“When he kicked it it looked like it was going right down the middle, then all of a sudden just felt a gust that came and pushed it back,” Campbell said. “It was like, ‘Man, when are we going to get our break?’ At some point, hopefully.”
Cundiff thought he made the kick, but blamed the temperature (24 degrees) and distance for the result
“If I could have that ball right there the rest of the year for every kick, I’d be extremely happy,” he said.
Brady finished 32-for-52 for 418 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a 91.7 rating. He did most of the damage after Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski was knocked from the game in the third quarter with what’s believed to be a serious knee injury after safety T.J. Ward hit him directly in the knee on a tackle.
It was the first time the Browns allowed a 300-yard passer this season. It was also the first time they faced Brady.
“You knew at some point they were going to make a push, and we have to stop that push,” said linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who had an interception. “With a guy like Brady, you can never count him out.”
“A lot of people counted us out, and for us to come in here and dominate the way we did — Tom Brady is arguably one of the best quarterbacks in this game and for us to manhandle him like that,” Gipson said. “The numbers might be deceiving — there’s two minutes left and he’s dinking and dunking — but if you look at our body of work, what we did to him pretty much the whole game, we took an ‘L’ but I feel like no guy in this locker room should have their head hanging down.”
Chudzinski and Jackson echoed the sentiment.
“I hate that we lost, but I feel better about this game than I have about any loss all year,” Jackson said. “I’m fully energized by this, by the way we played. I feel great about this team right now. I like the direction we’re moving in.”