Unless you're a Browns fan, you had to admire their commitment to losing last Sunday against their hated (for obvious reasons) divisional rivals from Baltimore. It wasn't easy, but with a losing effort for the ages, the Browns found a way to give that game away. They simply would not be denied.
Going into the fourth quarter the Browns were actually up 21-17. Keep that in the back of your head because you're about to have your mind blown.
Two plays into the fourth quarter the Ravens faced a third-and-12 from their own 18-yard line. Joe Flacco dropped back to pass, but he was hit almost immediately as he set up in the pocket. Flacco is big, strong and elite, as my buddy PFT Commenter would say, so he was still able to complete the pass to Tashaun Gipson for a 17-yard gain. Sure, Gipson is a safety for the Browns and the completion was really an interception that gave the Browns the ball on the Ravens' 30-yard line, but don't worry, it was all a setup.
You want to see fail?
How about the Browns trying to pitch the ball wide to rookie running back Isaiah Crowell, who had been running the hell out of the ball downhill up to that point. To increase the degree of difficulty, quarterback Brian Hoyer was stepped on by one of his offensive linemen while trying to deliver the pitch, which of course affected the trajectory. After watching the end zone shot of this play, I'm not entirely sure it wasn't supposed to be a handoff, but good on Hoyer for having the wherewithal to sort of push the ball to Crowell instead of fumbling it so Crowell could then be tackled for a loss of 8 yards.
Sure, they got some of it back with a completion to wide receiver Miles Austin for 6 yards on second down, but after an incompletion on third down they had to settle for Billy Cundiff missing a 50-yard field goal. They couldn't afford NOT to convert that turnover into points so late in such a close game.
Unfortunately, the defense just would not get with the program. Yeah, they did allow the Ravens to drive all the way down to the Browns' 21-yard line, but instead of just waving the white flag and letting them score they had the nerve to stop Flacco's sneak attempt on third-and-1 short of the first down. They turned around and did the same to Ravens rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro when he tried to run up the gut on fourth-and-inches. I guess they just wanted to keep the drama going a little while longer.
The Browns had the opportunity to close the door on the Ravens and send them home with a loss on the second play of the ensuing drive. On second-and-10 from their own 21, the Browns decided to try a play action pass with maximum protection and basically just two guys running routes down the field. One of those two route runners was undrafted rookie wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, a 5'8 speedster who ended up having a starring role in the Browns' epic failure.
See, for whatever reason the Ravens seemed to almost ignore Gabriel as he weaved his way down the field. At first he appeared to break out for a deep corner route before bending back in for a really really deep post route. He was so wide open I imagine he was already trying to decide which touchdown dance he was going to hit the crowd with after he crossed the goal line.
Hoyer did his part drifting to his right and launching a beautiful pass that was right on target. As the ball approached Gabriel, something had to have told him that if he did indeed catch that ball in stride and score a touchdown then all of the Browns fail up until that point would be for naught. You can see on the film that he clearly slows down just before ball gets to him only to end up diving to make the catch. Hoyer couldn't have thrown it any better, and that was a problem.
After Gabriel hit the ground he of course had to make it look good and get up and try to score by running the ball in the rest of the way. By that time, however, several Ravens actually noticed that Gabriel was on the field and ran like bats out of the depths of hell to catch him before he scored. Cornerback Jimmy Smith was the Raven who did the honors of making the tackle at Baltimore's 9-yard line. Gabriel could rest easy knowing that because of his efforts the Browns still had the opportunity to piss the game away.
After that, Browns rookie running back Terrance West was tackled for a 1-yard loss on first down. Hoyer was sacked for a loss of 6 on second down, after turning the wrong way to hand the ball off to West. Hoyer attempted to throw a touchdown to Austin on third down after running about 5 yards across the line of scrimmage.
And what did that set up, class? The opportunity to have Billy Cundiff's 36-yard field goal attempt blocked by the Ravens.
After all that, the score was still 21-17 with less than eight minutes left to go in the game.
Fail. So. Hard.
The Ravens ended up driving down for a field goal on the ensuing drive to make it 21-20. The Browns were still in jeopardy of winning this game, and the two teams traded punts on their next possessions. A one-point lead isn't much, but when you have two young runners including Crowell, who ended up averaging 5 yards per carry on the day, it could potentially be all you need with about 2:30 left in the game.
Enter Browns wide receiver/punt returner Travis Benjamin.
Benjamin has some serious wheels, but has been injured through much of his career and is rarely utilized on offense. The Ravens punted to him with 2:30 left. He called for a fair catch at the Browns' 25-yard line, and then watched as the ball landed five yard behind him and rolled just shy of the goal line before it was finally downed inside the 10 by the Ravens.
This is what you call a lemon booty twofer. On the one hand, the Browns were backed up and leading by a point. They can't afford to lose many yards, which severely limits what they can run on offense to try to run out the play clock. On the other hand, with a three-and-out the Ravens were virtually assured of good field position after a Browns punt. That was just failure perfection right there, by God.
Crowell ran on first down, cutting up inside for 5 yards, which forced the Ravens to call a timeout. Crowell ran on second down and tried to bounce outside to the left which predictably ended in a loss of 2 yards. It forced the Ravens to take their third and final timeout.
Now, I can understand why the Browns might have then run the ball on third-and-7 with 2:09 left to try to get the clock running and limit how much time the Ravens would have once they receive the punt. Then again, they could have also gone with a high-percentage play action pass from under center to try to get the first down.
Of course, that's thinking like somebody who is trying to win the game.
Instead, Hoyer lined up in the shotgun, announcing to the world that the Browns were throwing. He promptly missed Andrew Hawkins, who had one hell of a game to that point, on a crossing route. The pass was behind him, falling incomplete to stop the clock.
The Browns started that drive on their own 7-yard line with 2:19 left in the game. They punted four plays later from their own 10 with 2:05 left on the clock.
It was sheer buzzard luck that the punt took seven seconds, which ate up the two minute warning, or the Ravens would have had that at their disposal as well. Not to worry, the 40-yard punt gave them the ball at the 50. Two plays later, Flacco came up with a 32-yard completion to Steve Smith over cornerback Joe Haden and safety Donte Whitner, Cleveland's two best secondary players, and it was all over but the crying.
You might want to give a ton of credit to the Ravens for "hanging tough" and "making the plays when they counted," but I'm not really trying to hear that. The Browns put a lot more effort into losing that game than the Ravens did into winning it, and I want to acknowledge their efforts.
Failing that fantastically, at home no less, is hard. I just have to salute the Browns for that effort.