CLEVELAND — The Browns scored two defensive touchdowns. They got a spark and a touchdown from running back Edwin Baker, who arrived Tuesday and had never carried the ball in an NFL game. They led three times.
As is almost always the case with the Browns, none of it mattered.
The Browns ended their home season Sunday like they so often do, with a disappointing loss in front of thousands of empty seats. This time, it was Bears 38, Browns 31.
The Browns (4-10) have dropped five in a row and eight of nine. They went 3-5 at home in coach Rob Chudzinski’s first season. They have lost at least 10 games in six straight seasons.
“When you get a habit of winning, you find a way to win, and vice versa,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “We’ve been finding a way of letting leads slip away. That’s been our Achilles’ heel. I think it’s all in habit.
“We’ve got to be able to finish these games. You can say it’s because we’re young, but we’ve played enough football this year to learn from our mistakes in the past.”
The highly ranked defense — missing No. 1 cornerback Joe Haden, who suffered a hip pointer in the third quarter — allowed 21 points in the fourth quarter as it blew a fourth-quarter lead for the third straight week.
Free safety Tashaun Gipson’s 44-yard interception return for a touchdown and strong safety T.J. Ward’s 51-yard fumble return for a touchdown had been relegated to footnotes. The last team to lose after scoring two defensive touchdowns was Buffalo in 2007.
“I just never guessed we’d lose after having the hot start that we did,” said Gipson, who had two first-half interceptions that led to 10 points. “If you would have told me that in the middle of the second quarter I would have never believed you.
“It’s not us melting down in the fourth quarters. It’s just us not making the plays when it counts.”
Quarterback Jason Campbell threw two interceptions — including a pick-six to start the second half — failed to get receiver Josh Gordon adequately involved and couldn’t build on his big game the week before in New England. He went 23-for-39 for 273 yards, a late 43-yard touchdown to Gordon and a 67.6 rating. He’s 1-5 as a starter.
“I’m very disappointed in myself to say the least,” Campbell said. “It definitely wasn’t the performance I thought I could come out and have today. I thought I’d come out with a great one and give us an opportunity.”
The defense had its opportunity for redemption, but blew it again.
The string of late collapses started against Jacksonville, which scored the winning touchdown in the final minute. The Patriots scored two touchdowns in the final 61 seconds the next week to erase a 12-point deficit.
Chicago, which improved to 8-6 and moved into first place in the NFC North, didn’t wait as long to break Cleveland’s heart.
Alshon Jeffery caught a 45-yard touchdown pass in double coverage when the ball, with help from a strong breeze, sailed over the head of a leaping Gipson, who appeared set to make his third interception. It tied the score at 24 with 10:59 left and ended a 95-yard drive that started with a 30-yard pass interference penalty on rookie cornerback Leon McFadden. He was called for the same penalty to set up New England’s winning touchdown, but this one looked legitimate.
After a three-and-out for the Browns that ended when Campbell skipped a pass to an open Gordon, the Bears took the lead for good with 5:41 remaining. Jay Cutler, who missed the previous four games with an ankle injury, hit Earl Bennett for a 4-yard score on third down with cornerback Buster Skrine in coverage.
Cutler overcame two first-half interceptions that had Bears fans further questioning first-year coach Marc Trestman’s decision to replace red-hot Josh McCown. Cutler went 22-for-31 for 265 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and a 102.2 rating.
A 40-yard Michael Bush touchdown run, which gave the Bears 179 rushing yards and an average of 5.8 per carry, was the insurance needed to absorb Gordon’s touchdown with 59 seconds left that gave him a score in five straight games, tying Hall of Famer Paul Warfield’s streak in 1976.
Gordon entered on the best four-game receiving streak in NFL history with 774 yards. He was blanked in the first half and finished with three catches (on 10 targets) for 67 yards, falling 20 yards short of tying the record 861-yard five-game stretch of Detroit’s Calvin Johnson.
“It’s just frustrating, but it’s a part of the game,” Gordon said of his slow start. “Sometimes we click a little earlier, sometimes we don’t.”
The offense was well off its form from a week earlier. Tight end Jordan Cameron caught three passes for 23 yards, Baker was the leading rusher with 38 yards on eight attempts and Campbell admitted to struggling in the wind when he tried to throw downfield.
But the lack of clutch defense has been the recurring theme lately. The Browns have allowed six touchdowns and 49 points in the fourth quarter of the last three games.
The absence of Haden was a factor Sunday as the Browns allowed 173 of Chicago’s 440 yards in the fourth quarter. He left with 3:59 left in the third quarter when 320-pound left tackle Jermon Bushrod inadvertently kneed him in the hip as Haden went to the ground on a running play. He walked into the locker room with trainers and left without talking to reporters.
Without Haden, McFadden moved into the base defense and first-year player Julian Posey played as the third corner. McFadden wouldn’t have been in the game or covering Jeffery on the pass interference play, and Posey wouldn’t have been on Jeffery for the tying touchdown. He was behind Jeffery with Gipson in front.
“Joe is a great player, it hurt to see him go down,” Ward said. “We think he’s going to be all right, but when guys come in they just have to step up.”
Chudzinski said Haden will be examined again today to determine the severity of the injury.
All the positives the players and coaches had talked about taking away from the close loss to the Patriots, and building on for a strong finish to the season, had disappeared in another defeat. At home. In another forgettable season.
“Coach had a message this week of us fighting, focusing and finishing,” Jackson said. “We always fight. A lot of times our focus isn’t always there for four quarters. And then we’ve got to finish. That was clear today. Finishing was a big part of his message last week and we came up short.”
Chudzinski called the players’ effort “outstanding,” but knows that’s not enough.
“It’s about production and the outcome,” he said. “It’s a matter of us doing a better job in the key points of games and everybody doing a better job of being able to close it out and come up with a win.”