A defensive performance highlighted by four interceptions and limited Lamar Jackson to 165 yards passing and 68 running was wasted by the Browns in a 16-10 loss. (Cleveland Browns)
Browns playoff chances are down to a hope and a prayer after squandering four interceptions in 16-10 loss to Ravens
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland.
The way this Browns season started, who could have envisioned the way it ended in the biggest game of the year?
Who could have guessed the defense would be the source of pride and the offense the embarrassment?
But that’s the way this year has gone. The unexpected happened from beginning to end. And the end came early, before the first official snowfall, when the Browns’ offense genuflected to the Baltimore Ravens and lost, 16-10.
Yes, five games remain, three in the AFC North division, including a rematch in Cleveland against the Ravens (8-3) on Dec. 5 after the Browns’ much-needed bye week. Yes, anything can happen, and in this crazy season nothing is totally out of the realm.
But, realistically, the Browns (6-6) kissed the division away – and probably the playoffs -- by turning four interceptions of Lamar Jackson into three points.
Since 2015, starting quarterbacks were 0-37 when throwing four interceptions in an NFL game.
Each of the interceptions came on passes intended for Browns-killer Mark Andrews. Consider that the Browns had as many interceptions as Andrews had receptions. But there were two broken plays in the third quarter when the Browns lost coverage of Andrews and it cost them dearly.
One was for 39 yards when safety Ronnie Harrison lost him while Jackson was running for his life from pressure. The other came three plays later when Jackson retreated 23 yards behind the line of scrimmage with Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Garrett steaming in on him and Andrews circled back into the end zone, apparently lost by safety Grant Delpit, and Jackson hit him for a touchdown recorded as 13 yards but in actuality was a 38-yard completion.
That made the score 13-3 in Baltimore’s favor. Baker Mayfield finally found the end zone on a 20-yard touchdown to David Njoku, and then Ravens future Hall of Fame kicker Justin Tucker made his 55th field goal in 55 tries in the fourth quarter or overtime in his career to force the Browns to go 75 yards in the final 1:10 with no timeouts to win it.
And here’s how that attempt at a signature game-winning drive transpired:
First down: Mayfield escapes pressure from edge rusher Justin Houston and barely threw the ball away.
Second down: Mayfield’s pass for Jarvis Landry was short.
Third down: Mayfield’s pass for Austin Hooper was short.
Fourth down: Mayfield threw to David Njoku, who was tackled three yards short of a first down.
The offensive ineptitude was magnified by a superlative performance by the safeties and Denzel Ward, and Clowney and Garrett, and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who undercut runners all night.
Mayfield was 18 of 37 for 247 yards with the touchdown to Njoku, one interception and one lost fumble. He lost for the fourth time in a row to the Ravens.
“We just need to make more plays,” Mayfield said. “I mean, as simple as that sounds, that’s really the way it is. There are plays there to be made, and we need to make them. We have to have answers for the zero pressures [no deep safety] when we face them.
“Baltimore did a good job today. When they showed zero pressures, they bailed out. And when they weren't showing it, they brought it. We just need to recognize that and make more plays. We need to have a little bit more confidence and regroup and trust that we have the guys that can make those plays.”
Despite never trailing by more than 10 points, the Browns failed to call on their league-leading running game. They lost right tackle Jack Conklin with a serious knee injury on the 10th play of the game. Even before that, coach Kevin Stefanski seemed intent on putting the ball in Mayfield’s hands instead of those of stellar running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who were reunited after injuries for the first time in a month.
For the game, Chubb ran eight times for 16 yards. Hunt carried seven times for 20 yards. Worse, Hunt was thrown the ball exactly one time.
Since a 47-42 loss to the Chargers in Game 5, the Browns have scored 14, 17, 10, 41, 7, 13 and 10 points. The second year of Stefanski’s offense, with everyone of importance returning, was supposed to be the strength of the team. It’s become uglier than Aaron Rodgers’ fractured toe.
“It’s frustrating. It is very frustrating,” Stefanski said, his voice soft and breaking. “To not score enough, it’s always a combination of things—staying on the field on third down, trying to run the ball effectively and getting in the red zone, all of those things. But we’re just not doing a good enough job, and that starts with me.”
Stefanski said “it felt like” the Browns were trying to run the ball enough. He would not credit the Ravens’ loading the box to stop the run as a reason for throwing the ball 37 times. In truth, Stefanski once again played into the opposition’s favor by placing the ball in his quarterback’s hands rather than in his running backs’ hands.
There were other bad moments for Stefanski.
Down by only 6-0 in the second quarter, he lined up receiver Jarvis Landry in the Wildcat formation and apparently called for a backwards pass to Mayfield, who waved for the balll after stepping beind the line of scrimmage. But Landry was fixated on something downfield and while trying to find a receiver he was blind-sided by pass rusher Odafe Oweh and lost the ball.
The Browns wound up with a field goal after a subsequent interception of Jackson, but they certainly squandered a touchdown opportunity with another trick play gone awry.
“Listen, hindsight is 20-20,” Stefanski said. “If I had known that was going to happen, obviously, I wouldn’t have called it.”
Also, there was a sequence of plays on defense in the first quarter on which the Browns called timeout to avoid being penalized for 12 men on the field and then were penalized for 12 men on the field after the timeout.
“That’s coaching. That’s on me. Bottom line,” Stefanski said.
So now the Browns face a bye week of deep contemplation on how to turn it around, run the table of five remaining games, and hope for the best. Last year, they used the bye week to make favorable adjustments.
One thing they won’t do this year is consider a quarterback change.
“Why would we do that?” Stefanski asked when the question was posed. “We’re not doing that.”