Sunday, December 23, 2007

Instead of Delivering Knockout Blow, Browns Shoot Themselves in the Foot

The Cleveland Browns squandered an opportunity to earn a Wild Card berth as Derek Anderson threw four interceptions that the Cincinnati Bengals converted into 13 points en route to a 19-14 victory. That result enabled the Pittsburgh Steelers to clinch the AFC North title. The Browns can still make the playoffs but they no longer control their own destiny; if the Tennessee Titans beat the Indianapolis Colts next week then the Titans will get the final AFC playoff berth--and the Colts will likely be resting most of their top players because they cannot move up in the standings; as CBS' Phil Simms noted, Colts' Coach Tony Dungy has said, "If you're depending on us for help, tough."

At the start of the game, it looked like all the Browns needed to do was deliver one or two punches in the mouth and the Bengals would have been more than happy to quit. The Bengals gained just 13 yards on their first possession before being forced to punt and then the Browns easily moved downfield from their 10 to the Cincinnati 22 in just eight plays. The drive stalled, though, and the Browns had nothing to show for their efforts after a botched hold prevented them from even attempting a field goal. Carson Palmer threw an interception on the third play of the Bengals' second possession and Leigh Bodden's 22 yard return set the Browns up at the Cincinnati 28 yard line. Good teams capitalize on such opportunities by scoring touchdowns; the Browns were unable to gain 10 yards and turned the ball over on downs after eschewing a field goal attempt. The Bengals then put together their best drive of the game (10 plays, 69 yards) but the Browns held them to a field goal. Cincinnati later tacked on another three points after a 48 yard drive but when the Browns got the ball at their own 43 with 1:27 left in the first half they had an excellent chance to run their two minute offense and take a lead by scoring a touchdown. At worst, Cleveland only needed to gain 30-40 yards to kick a field goal. Instead, Anderson's first down pass was intercepted and returned all the way to Cleveland's five yard line. Palmer's touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh put the Bengals up 13-0. Incredibly, Anderson threw another first down interception, providing the Bengals great field position at the Cleveland 20. Two plays later, the Bengals led 19-0 after a touchdown run by Kenny Watson (they decided to go for a two-point conversion instead of kicking an extra point).

Although the opportunity for Cleveland to deliver a knockout punch was long gone, the game was still there for the taking. The Browns drove all the way to the Cincinnati nine yard line on the opening possession of the second half but again came up empty after Anderson threw an interception. Cincinnati got one first down before punting the ball away. The Browns drove downfield and finally scored a touchdown just before the end of the third quarter on Anderson's two yard pass to Braylon Edwards, who broke Gary Collins' franchise record for single season touchdown receptions (14). The Bengals promptly went three and out and the Browns again moved right down the field to the Cincinnati 29 before the drive stalled as Anderson threw incomplete passes on third and fourth down.

The Bengals responded with a three and out and Joshua Cribbs' punt return gave the Browns great field position at the Cincinnati 48. The Browns gained 31 yards on the next three plays before an Anderson interception ended that scoring opportunity. The Bengals continued to show their lack of interest in winning the game by turning the ball back over on the very next play as Palmer threw an interception that Bodden returned to the Cincinnati 16. Three plays later, Anderson's second touchdown pass to Edwards made the score 19-14 and it looked like the Browns might overcome their ineptitude and beat the lifeless Bengals. All Cleveland needed was one defensive stop and no more turnovers, because their offense had repeatedly demonstrated the ability to drive down the field. Instead, the Browns let the Bengals convert two first downs that drained most of the remaining time off of the clock. The Bengals had the ball at the Cleveland 22 yard line and were about to clinch the win when Watson fumbled, giving the Browns one last chance. Anderson drove Cleveland to the Bengals 29 yard line before time ran out in the game--and possibly for the Browns' postseason chances.

The Browns gained more yards (380-270), had more first downs (25-15) and won the time of possession battle (33:06-26:54) but simply could not overcome Anderson's interceptions. Cleveland's last ranked defense performed decently overall but did give up 130 yards on 30 carries to Watson, a career backup who was playing in place of the injured Rudi Johnson. This was essentially the first playoff game for the young players on the Browns' roster--win and you're in, lose and you're probably out. Perhaps they will receive a second chance if Tennessee loses next week but, most likely, they will have a long offseason to think about the opportunity that they squandered today in Cincinnati.

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