Breaking point: Browns' defense flusters Luck but can't finish in fourth quarter
There are plenty of ways to describe the Cleveland Browns' 25-24 loss to the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, a game in which their defense caused four turnovers against the league's top offense.
One of the Browns' defensive leaders, Donte Whitner, summed it up aptly: "Playoff teams win these games. Bottom line, playoff teams win these games. We worked our butt off all week and wanted to come out here and prove a point but we fell one point short."
One point in a game in which one yard, one burst of extra effort made the difference. Down 24-19 with under a minute remaining on fourth and inches at the Cleveland three yardline, Colts running back Daniel Herron spun out of a logjam in the backfield to get a first down.
"I thought I had him, but it's a game of inches," Whitner said.
One play later, Andrew Luck hit T.Y. Hilton on a one-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds left to culminate a 90-yard, 11 play game-winning drive.
That was Luck being the elite quarterback he is, on a day where he struggled through what he called "bone-headed mistakes."
"It's really tough to have the effort we did and the kind of plays we made and not come through in the end. Especially that last drive on defense, I wish we could have that back," Browns linebacker Paul Kruger said.
Ninety yards on 11 plays in 3 minutes and 14 seconds. It was the Colts' longest drive on a day in which Luck and company was stifled by an attacking and opportunistic Browns defense.
Three of their four turnovers were on behalf of Luck and two resulted in Browns touchdowns, a strip sack (by the combination of Kruger and Desmond Bryant) that ended up in the hands of linebacker Craig Robertson in the end zone and a pick six by rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert, the first rounder's first interception of his career.
Luck's final numbers weren't pretty -- he completed less than half of his passes (24-of-53) to go on top of the turnovers. In the first half particularly, the Browns made the elite Luck look pedestrian, holding him to 9-of-22 passing for just 86 yards.
While the Browns defense contained Luck for most of the game, the offense struggled to capitalize. On the two forced turnovers the defense didn't cap with six points themselves, a Jim Leonhard interception and Joe Haden forced fumble, Brian Hoyer and company managed only three points.
"Our job as a defense is to create turnovers, try to score points and get the ball back to the offense. Everything else is out of our control," Haden said. "We just have to keep looking at us to figure out what we need to do in order to help this team win. The other side of the ball will figure out what they need to do in order to help this team win as well."
That other side couldn't find its direction enough Sunday, totaling less than 300 yards of offense and contributing only one touchdown to the defense's two.
Despite those offensive shortcomings, the Browns' veteran safety Leonhard preached unity.
"Please don't try to split this team - offense, defense," Leonhard said. "It ain't about that. We're on the field defensively with the lead -- in our minds, we win that game."
Luck had other ideas, and the Browns defense was left in a position that was reminiscent of years past, watching the opposing team cap off a game-winning drive in the west end zone of FirstEnergy Stadium.
Former Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who signed with the Colts this offseason and has been on the heartbreaking side of many of those outcomes in Cleveland, was glad to have Luck on his side this time around.
Josh Cribbs, who joined the Colts just a few weeks ago, also encountered plenty of demoralizing losses and rough seasons in his seven seasons as a Brown.
"I spoke to a lot of the guys at the end and told them they're a hell of a football team. They're way better than we were when I was playing with the team," Cribbs said. "They should've won -- they had us, but they've got to play four quarters. "
Sunday, it was one point short in a season that has twisted and turned for the Browns by the smallest of margins. Six times Cleveland's result has been decided by three points or less. In those tight finishes, the Browns are 3-3.
"They made one more play than we made," Whitner said of the Colts, referring specifically to Herron's pivotal late, fourth down conversion.
That's all it takes.
At 9-4 and two games up in the AFC South, the Colts are very likely a playoff team.
For the Browns, 7-6 but still last in the uber-competitive AFC North, every play, every point, and every game is crucial if they want to be one too.
"It just puts our margin for error to zero," Kruger said. "We're still in it. We can still get it done. We just can't afford to lose in this division."