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Can Browns shake hard-to-figure heartbreaker?

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Recent posts by Mike Wilkening

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Posted Nov. 15, 2010 @ 6:56 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

An incredibly tough set of circumstances faced by the offense, coupled with a defense that finally broke at the worst possible time, spelled defeat Sunday for the Browns, which now must rebound quickly from a 26-20 OT loss to the Jets if they want to keep their faded playoff hopes alive.

With the game tied 20-20 with less than two minutes left in the extra period, Browns rookie CB Joe Haden hauled in an interception of a deep Mark Sanchez pass on the Cleveland three-yard line. While the pick ended the Jets' drive, it was the equivalent of a coffin-corner punt, and Cleveland now found itself backed up near its own endzone.

With relatively little time and more than half the field to travel to even consider a potential game-winning field-goal attempt, the Browns had to decide whether to play it safe and go for the tie — not the worst-possible outcome, given the circumstances — or press their luck, play aggressive and try to get the ball out of their own end. Head coach Eric Mangini chose the second option, and the plan did not work. QB Colt McCoy threw a deep incompletion down the middle on first down. On second down, RB Peyton Hillis ran off right tackle for two yards to the five. The Browns, who had called their lone timeout with 41 seconds left to set up a third-down play, attempted a pass on the following down, but McCoy was sacked on the Cleveland two, escaping a safety.

Punting deep in his endzone, P Reggie Hodges boomed a 53-yard punt, but Jets PR Jim Leonhard was able to return it 18 yards to the Cleveland 37. On the next play, the Jets struck with the game-winner, a WR Santonio Holmes 37-yard TD on a catch-and-run off a slant. Holmes beat CB Eric Wright, and LB Eric Barton and S T.J. Ward also couldn't make the tackle.

Afterward, Mangini explained his thought process on the Browns' final OT drive and said the team was aiming for the win.

"Yes, I thought we had the shot there and then I thought that they would be playing a little bit lighter on the second one," Mangini, referring to the first two downs of the sequence. "That was one of our core runs that we felt really good about to get it to a 3rd-and-manageable there and be able to get the first down and start going. Then you're in a difficult situation because you're backed up, so if you don't get the first down, you're punting the ball like we did and they're right there in a position to win the game. It's a function of trying to move the ball out and also protect the time. We could have run it three times and run out the clock at that point, but I thought we had a chance. That was the thinking."

The PFW Spin

The Browns pride themselves on playing smart situational football, but here was a very unique situation. They had horrible field position, little time and just one timeout. If Mangini had played for the tie, the Browns would have had a better record today (3-5-1), but he would also be facing criticism for not going for the win, and if the Browns had finished half a game out of the playoffs, the "what-ifs" would cascade on him. The Browns did have a well-designed play on first down in the sequence and simply couldn't execute it; if that succeeds, we might be having a different discussion. 

Tie or lose, Mangini was going to not please everyone with his decision, and such is his lot Monday. But there's one other issue here that can't be escaped: when the Jets started their drive at the Cleveland 37 with 24 seconds left, they were at the far reaches of PK Nick Folk's field-goal range, and Folk had missed three FG attempts earlier in the game. Moreover, the Jets had no timeouts. In short, Cleveland had a chance to make a defensive stop and could not get it done. If Wright, who has surrendered some big plays this season, couldn't stop the completion, he had to make the tackle, and if he couldn't, one of his teammates had to make the play. 

On the game, the Jets held a 47:08-27:36 time-of-possession edge, and they converted 11-of-21 third downs. While Cleveland did well to limit the Jets to just 20 points in regulation, the danger that the Browns' defense would simply fail to get a stop when it needed it most was always present as the game dragged on.

The Browns were valiant in defeat. There is much to build upon, including rookie QB Colt McCoy proving he could lead the team down the field to tie the game in regulation and the overall toughness and resilency of the defense even after OLB Scott Fujita and CB Sheldon Brown left the game with injuries. Now, they must get over the unsatisfying end to a confounding, heartbreaking loss — and, most importantly, improve off of it as they prepare for 5-4 Jacksonville, which experienced a whole other range of emotions in defeating Houston 31-24 on a "Hail Mary" pass Sunday.

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