CINCINNATI — The Cleveland Browns had a good defensive game in the opener — and lost.
Then they had a good offensive game in the second week — and lost.
Which brings up the question: Is a loss easier to take when the losing team looks good?
Or are the Browns, at this point of a season, playing just well enough to lose?
Sunday in Cincinnati, the Browns got record-breaking rookie performances from their rookie running back and quarterback — and lost.
Big plays and a dismal day in the secondary doomed Cleveland as the Bengals outscored them 34-27.
Somewhere Joe Haden was watching, and you just wonder if whatever he did that led to his four-game suspension was worth it. Because though the Browns tried to minimize it, Haden’s absence made a huge difference in the secondary.
“He’s tough to replace,” said linebacker Scott Fujita. “Everyone has to step up though.”
But missing the team’s best cover corner took a large toll — not so much with the next guy up but with the guys after, as Cincinnati’s “complementary” receivers shredded the Browns secondary.
Combine Haden’s absence with the fact the Browns chose to sit Sheldon Brown and play Buster Skrine and the Browns were defending with guys who opened the season as the third and fourth corners. Coach Pat Shurmur said Brown was fine, but he likes the veteran corner and Brown took a shot to the neck in the opener. Whatever the reason, he didn’t play.
The result: Dalton threw for 318 yards and three touchdowns and a had a rating of 128.2, and Browns castoff (from rookie camp) Andrew Hawkins turned a third-down catch into a 50-yard touchdown.
“I don’t think I played very well,” Skrine said.
Dimitri Patterson was responsible for standout A.J. Green, and said after the game the Bengals made every effort to get him the ball. Green finished with seven catches and just 58 yards.
Many others came through.
Hawkins avoided rookie Trevin Wade on his catch and then made several Browns miss on his run.
Brandon Tate beat Eric Hagg down the sideline for a touchdown.
Green stepped out of Patterson’s tackle on a short touchdown catch.
And on a key third down in the fourth quarter with the Browns needing a stop to close a seven-point deficit, Jermaine Gresham outfought T.J. Ward on the sidelines for a first-down catch that set up a field goal.
A few plays earlier, Ward had barely stopped BenJarvus Green-Ellis for a seven-yard gain on third-and-one. As Ward knelt on the field he waved his hands as if to signal incomplete, after a seven-yard gain. There was no signal after Gresham’s catch.
All the secondary shenanigans didn’t obscure the offensive day, as the Browns recovered from a dismal opening game to put 439 yards on the board (and lose).
Weeden completed 26-of-37 — 70 percent — for 322 yards, a record by a Browns rookie. He also threw for two touchdowns — his first as a Brown. The first was a short throw to Trent Richardson that Richardson turned into a score on an electrifying run, the second a 24-yarder to Greg Little to cut a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to seven.
“It was a lot better than last week,” Weeden said. “But there is still a sour taste.”
Richardson had the first 100-yard back by a Browns rookie since 2003, gaining 109 yards on 19 carries. He scored when he busted a draw play outside from the 32, then made five Bengals miss after catching Weeden’s short throw.
“It was a much better game for me,” Richardson said. “But I wouldn’t call it complete because we didn’t win.”
But they did provide hope that maybe, just maybe the plan can work. Because both looked far more like NFL players than they did in the opener, and the offense looked far more accomplished.
The Browns outpassed the Bengals 309-295, outrushed them 130-80, had the same number of first downs (21) and were far better on third down (7-for-15 compared to 4-for-12).
That was all good.
But it also was for naught.
“Defensively we let the guys down today,” linebacker Scott Fujita said.
Asking if Haden would have helped is asking the obvious — though as Shurmur said “Joe could have had an ankle injury.”
But in a game as close as this was, one good cover guy could have been the difference.
Instead, the Browns have to accept another head-scratcher.
A week ago Richardson totaled 39 yards and Weeden had a 5.1 rating and the defense gave up just 17 points and forced four turnovers and the Browns lost.
In week two, the running back averaged 5.7 yards per carry and the quarterback had a 114.9 rating and the offense totaled 439 yards, but the defense cratered and the Browns lost.
Cleveland now has lost 12 in a row in the AFC North, and even with the second-game improvement on offense, the Browns have started 0-2 for fourth time in the last five seasons.