1. Inches. For all the pregame hype, storylines and (mostly lighthearted) trash talk, the Browns-Jets game came down to inches. Well, Nick Folk missed by more feet than inches (though one hit the upright), but it came down to inches. Chansi Stuckey being an inch from doing what he should have done and stepping out of bounds before he fumbled. The Jets’ running game flexing its muscle with some big third and fourth-down conversions to keep the tired Browns defense on the field. Mark Sanchez narrowly escaping sacks. Reggie Hodges having to rush a punt, inches from the back line, because the Jets got one final stop and let Santonio Holmes make one final play. Rex Ryan enjoyed every inch of the victory cigar he was puffing outside the stadium after the game, because he knew his team had stolen one. The Browns were oh, so close again. They’ve achieved NFL relevance. They were on the cusp of legitimacy, even with a tie. Now they’re just playing for progress, and to save their coach’s job, and to keep proving that they can play with the NFL’s big boys.
2. About that final overtime possession. You have to — HAVE TO — run the ball on first down from your own 3-yard line for many reasons. One, you need minimum 60 yards to even think about a field goal, and you have to get 10 before you can think about 60. Two, you need to get your rookie QB some breathing room. In sudden death you can’t have him dropping back into his own endzone risking a slip, a fumble or a holding penalty. Three (and maybe most importantly, these aren’t listed in any particular order), your best player is a 255-pound running back who not only always falls forward but slips out of lots of tackles. Peyton Hillis might have pushed the Browns to the 6, but he also might have pushed them to the 16. Four, on first down you, as an offense, are in the driver’s seat. The only limit the Browns had there was the goal line nipping at Colt McCoy’s ankles. On first down they had all sorts of options and the Jets had to react to the Browns’ move, whatever it was. By throwing incomplete, stopping the clock and making it second down, the Jets suddenly had more control of their own situation. They knew the Browns would run on second down, could plan to save their lone remaining time out for third and really seized the moment when it was clear a rookie QB was worried about standing in his own endzone and not making a killer mistake against one of the league’s best defenses. In poker terms, the Browns were tentative and essentially squandered a chip lead. Even getting 2 yards and, say, 20 seconds on first down would have created more room for punter Reggie Hodges, who had to catch a short snap, punt the ball quickly and not go through his normal routine. A punt (and punt coverage) is a timing and rhythm play; even two yards screwed that timing up. It led to the Jets getting it where they did, in the situation they did. Inches.
3. Inches. The team that works on actual situations from past classic games from the very first time it takes to the practice field in May and prides itself on being as smart and prepared as anyone lost to situational football in overtime. Stuckey has to be sick, and it’s a shame because he’s had a nice year. It’s tough to fault his effort, but he has to run out of bounds. And the Browns have to run Hillis both on first down on their own 3 and on third down instead of throwing long. The coaching has been excellent and has been as big part of this progress we’ve seen over the last month as anything. We always get mad at coaches for playing it safe, but the fact is Rex Ryan admitted after the game he playing for the tie — “we weren’t going to lose the game, first of all,” he said — and the Browns weren’t sure if they wanted to play to win or tie. They ended up losing because the Jets got the last loose ball, got the last inch and got last opportunity for their gamebreaker.
4. Many fans like the moral victory aspect, love that the Browns played pretty well, continue to progress and have attained the aforementioned relevance. I understand. It’s still hard to not to feel empty and sorely disappointed that they didn’t at least get a tie. Again, it’s not often that a tie is a good thing. And even if it really is like kissing your sister, I’d choose the lipstick over 3-6. Now comes a real challenge, trying to recover physically and mentally and play a road game against a team with momentum and confidence, a team that’s now seen your rookie quarterback on film for four games. McCoy continues to improve and avoid back-breaking mistakes. He’s showing he belongs, he’s showing he trusts attacking the middle and showing that he knows he can count on Ben Watson and Evan Moore. He’s showing that the Browns can go wide receiver in the first round next April. It’s just a shame we’re back to talking draft instead of potential, lightning-strike playoff scenarios.
5. The Jets have lots of good players. Credit goes to a gassed Browns defense, playing without veteran leaders Sheldon Brown and Scott Fujita most of the way, for fighting the fight. The Jets showed guts, too, most notably Sanchez hanging in there and Jerricho Cotchery coming back to make that huge third-down catch in the middle of the field after injuring himself trying to get open early in the play. The Browns were chasing and chasing but they kept fighting. They started swinging at Braylon Edwards early in the game but ended up trading punches with the whole 7-2 Jets team for 75 minutes. It was a play here, an inch there, giving up a touchdown before the half and giving up third-down conversions in the second half that kept the defense on the field. The overtime opportunity squandered by the turnover in Jets territory, of course, stands as the defining moment. The Browns are better. They’re getting better, developing an identity and coming to fight. They’re just not quite there yet.