A wild comeback, but a very Browns-like ending in opener

Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham (6), right, hits a game-winning 41-yard field goal as time runs out in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game, while Cleveland Browns' Joe Haden (23) tries to block it on Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014, in Pittsburgh. The Steelers won 30-27.

Don Wright/AP

PITTSBURGH – A history of heartache and head-scratching decisions did not beat the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. As generally happens twice a year, the Pittsburgh Steelers did.

The Browns are 1-15 in season openers since 1999, and the 10 straight Opening Day losses are the most by any team in NFL history. Only a couple have stung like this latest one.

The Browns came from out of nowhere — they were down 27-3 at halftime — and came really, really close to shaking the "same old Browns" label while shaking up what looks like a very competitive AFC North. Close but not close enough, from darn near dead to almost pulling a total stunner, another ride back to Cleveland was a miserable one for the Browns.

The Steelers kicked a field goal to win, 30-27, on the last play of the game. One of the wildest games in recent memory — and by Browns standards, that’s pretty wild — ended up like so many others, with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger playing the magician and the Browns doing just enough to put themselves right there but not enough to win and beat that history, those demons, those Steelers.

All the crazy plays, all the sudden positives, and the end result was the same victorious Steelers, same old Browns.

"We’re 0-1," Browns coach Mike Pettine said. "I told the team this is a pass-fail league. We failed."

What Pettine wants and needs is change, in thinking but mostly in results, and a changed Browns team showed up for the second half, getting the only two touchdowns of the third quarter and 10 more points in the first four minutes of the fourth to tie the game. After throwing the tying touchdown, Brian Hoyer pumped his fist, looked to the sky, then pointed at the Steelers sideline.

That hasn’t happened much, in this series or wherever else the Browns have played. After stinking up the stadium in the first half — most of his teammates did, too — the Browns turned up the pace of their offense in the second half and found success. The Steelers had played too fast for the Browns early, but the Browns found a way to slow Roethlisberger. At one point, the Heinz Field crowd practically booed the home team off the field.

But in crunch time, Roethlisberger came up big. He and Markus Wheaton picked on Browns rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert all day, and two passes to Wheaton totaling 31 yards in the final 30 seconds set Shaun Suisham’s third field goal, a 41-yarder that won it.

Earlier, the Browns had punted instead of having Billy Cundiff try a 53-yard field goal with 4:40 left in a tie game. Spencer Lanning’s perfectly placed punt should have been downed inside the 5; instead, the bouncing ball his Christian Kirksey when he was standing on the goal line and was ruled a touchback. The Steelers punted back, but then the Browns — pinned deep themselves — went six yards backwards in going three and out, leading to the winning drive.

There was also the third down mixup on the last play of the third quarter at the Steelers 5-yard line. The Browns only needed one yard, but Hoyer turned the wrong way and the Browns settled for a field goal. Because Roethlisberger threw for 278 yards in the first half and the only time the Browns slowed him, on a Karlos Dansby interception, they punted the ball right back, there was no margin for error.

Same old Browns.

"That was on me," Hoyer said of the third-and-short mixup. "All on me. We have two plays like that and I thought it was the other one. I have to get that right."

The same old Browns showed up for the first 30 minutes of the game and again for about three minutes at the end. The Steelers got the bounces, the inches and the last laugh.

"I’m proud of the effort in the second half but it’s a valuable lesson to learn," Pettine said. "When you’re down 24 points at halftime, I don’t know what the percentages are of coming back and winning. I guarantee it’s probably around 1 percent."

The start was especially alarming because the Browns looked like too many previous Browns teams with missed tackles, poor tackling angles and an offense that was basically stuck in the mud. This Browns team was really bad in the preseason and carried that into the start of the real season, but the best news going forward may be that the offense found a preferred tempo and some confidence.

"We knew exactly what we wanted to do," Hoyer said of the up-tempo offense. "It was quick…successful. It might be something we obviously have to keep doing."

Said cornerback Joe Haden: "This isn’t like last year when we weren’t finishing games. We were down by 24 points. We kept pushing, pushing, fighting. scratching. They just made a few more plays at the end. We fought. And it hurts."

More from the Browns opener

The goal is to keep it from becoming last year, or most other years. Hoyer seemed to really get confident when the Browns turned up the offensive tempo. Rookie runners Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell gashed a tired defense after starter Ben Tate left injured, and even with Jordan Cameron sidelined due to a shoulder issue late the Browns moved the ball through the air in the fourth quarter until their final drive, when Hoyer said he didn’t get the whole play call because the sideline to quarterback speaker cuts off at 15 seconds on the play clock.

The Browns wasted a bunch of time and saved a timeout, but didn’t end up getting to use it. For much of the second half, they pushed the Steelers off the ball and got where they wanted to go.

Now, they have to clean things up, get Gilbert up to speed and get focused on the next chance. The New Orleans Saints are coming to Cleveland next week, and they’re also 0-1 and angry.

"The margin of error," Hoyer said, "is so small." The Browns aren’t dead. They’re winless, they’re disappointed, and they’re still flawed, but as far as sick feelings after crushing losses go, maybe this one can end up being OK.

The Browns can’t be anything but sick. It was right there Sunday; they’re just not yet good enough to have grabbed it.