CINCINNATI — In what was arguably the most important game the Cleveland Browns have played in six years, the Browns played like they were ready for the moment.
For about 14 minutes.
Then they got buried by two quick scoring drives, a flurry that started with an interception deep in Browns territory, and a bunch of mistakes that included two blocked punts, one for a touchdown, and a fumble that became a Bengals touchdown as part of a crazy, 31-0 second quarter.
Yep, 31-0 in the second quarter. The final was 41-20. That’s how it went in the Browns biggest game in a long time, and the Browns slipped to 4-6 and 2.5 games behind the divisional pace.
The Browns led 13-0 early because of their defense. It wasn’t more because their offense stalled twice in the red zone early; their first touchdown came on a Joe Haden interception return. Jason Campbell’s streak of seven really good quarters of quarterbacking — the previous bar was set so low that was cause for much excitement — ended with a thud, and past a 43-yard run that was the longest by a Browns running back this season and a temporary jolt, the Browns didn’t run the ball, either.
For as mediocre as the rest of the AFC second wildcard field may be, the Browns aren’t sneaking into the playoffs this season because they can’t produce enough offense. As the weather gets worse over the remaining six games, it might get worse, too.
The Browns don’t run the ball and the secret is out on tight end Jordan Cameron, who’s still having a great season but is now getting extra attention from defenses. On Sunday, the Browns came off a bye week with some confidence and some momentum and some reason to believe they could grind another one out, and instead they ran into a good Bengals defense and a talented, desperate Bengals team.
If you don’t score on first and goal at the 2 against a good defense, as the Browns didn’t in Sunday’s first quarter, you won’t win. If you combine a bunch of checkdown passes with no real running game, good defenses will figure things out and spend a lot of time in your backfield.
This all happened Sunday.
“It was an opportunity for us to get up early in the game, 21-0, and make it a different game,” Campbell said. “We can’t let those opportunities slip, especially on the road against a good defense like this.
“Give them credit. They did adjust and did some great things defensively. They made some plays, tipped some balls, got interceptions.”
The turnovers and the pressure the Bengals were able to put on Campbell were too much. The lack of offense hurt, too, late in that second quarter when the Browns had a chance to stop the bleeding, at least temporarilty. Down 28-13, he Browns called timeout with 1:09 left before halftime to force the Bengals to punt and set something up to try to cut into the deficit before halftime. The Browns went false start, short pass, incomplete pass, incomplete pass. They saved time for the Bengals, who made it 31-13 at halftime.
Campbell finished 27-of-56 for 248 yards. He was sacked four times and intercepted three times, his first three interceptions since taking over as the Browns starter.
“(Campbell) had a tough day,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “The protection wasn’t as good as it has been, and we missed some connections.”
When the Browns were last seen slicing up the Ravens, Campbell got plenty of help from his receivers, specifically Greg Little and Davone Bess. On Sunday, they each made one catch — for a total of seven yards. Campbell did hit Josh Gordon on a 74-yard touchdown in the third quarter, but by then the Browns were in full chase mode and didn’t exactly have a turbo gear.
Cameron had six catches for 29 yards. Chris Ogbonnaya caught six passes for 30 yards out of the backfield. The Bengals turned their pressure into an early turnover — Michael Johnson deflected a pass that James Harrison intercepted to set up the first score — and were content to let Campbell dump it down later.
The numbers are a little skewed, obviously, by the blowout it became, but 4.42 yards per pass attempt isn’t close what it needs to be. Especially when a 74-yard touchdown to Gordon is a part of that average. With the Bengals running away, the Browns were limited to six run plays in the second half.
The Browns defense dominated the first quarter and was pretty good all day, as it’s been almost all season. But starting in the final minute of the first quarter, the offense’s drive chart looked like this: Interception, punt, punt, blocked punt, fumble for touchdown, punt, punt. After Gordon’s touchdown, it went interception, punt and then twice with the game long decided, the Browns came up short on downs.
They came up short in a game that could have changed the complexion and the feel of everything. An opportunity for Campbell and all involved to really make a statement was squandered, and the Browns now go forward into an all familiar spot.
A game against the Steelers, trying like crazy to stay out of last place.