BALTIMORE — Their postseason hopes on the line, the Browns were just as erratic, unfocused, and undisciplined as they had been for most of the previous 11 games.
Defensive tackle Malik McDowell was called for a late high out of bounds. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney whiffed on a Lamar Jackson run. Coach Kevin Stefanski dialed up a too cute direct snap to receiver Jarvis Landry that resulted in a fumble.
The offense was just as stagnant as the unit that had scored more than 17 points just once in the previous six games.
With a chance to take the lead with 45 seconds left before the half, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield let the ball slip out of his hands as he went back to pass. It was one of four turnovers by the two teams in the final 3:04 of the second quarter. Landry and Mayfield lost fumbles, safeties Grant Delpit and Ronnie Harrison intercepted Jackson.
The Browns took incompetence to a new level on special teams, failing to field the correct number of men three times in the final 3:11 of the first quarter.
Kicker Chase McLaughlin picked the worst time to falter, missing a 46-yard field goal wide left and dinging his second try from the same distance off the left upright before it fell in.
Their regression from 2020 was so dramatic it made last season feel like an impossible dream, not the start of sustained success that it was supposed to be. That notion turned out to be too optimistic, with reigning NFL Coach of the Year Stefanski just as shaky as his charges in terms of his play-calling and failure to halt the Browns’ self-inflicted wounds.
Yet the Browns still had a chance to beat the Ravens and make winning ugly their calling card.
It wasn’t surprising they didn’t, failing to clean up their messes in the second half just as they have all season.
Sunday night’s football abomination seemed fitting with what has gone on for weeks. Missed opportunities in losses to the Kansas City Chiefs (33-29), the Los Angeles Chargers (47-42), the Pittsburgh Steelers (15-10), and the Ravens will be remembered as their downfall, but their lack of attention to detail will be their signature.
Mathematically, the Browns are not eliminated. They can still win out and finish 11-6. But the stacked AFC has nine teams above .500 and only seven spots in the postseason, so the Browns’ best chance was claiming the division title.
The Browns (6-6) couldn’t afford to fall further behind the Ravens (8-3). The two teams meet again at FirstEnergy Stadium on Dec. 12 after the Browns’ Dec. 5 bye. The Browns conclude the season Jan. 9 with Cincinnati (7-4).
But the Browns were upbeat and energetic coming in, fueled by the return of running back Kareem Hunt and right tackle Jack Conklin from injured reserve. There was a sense that they were getting whole at the right time, with Sunday night the first of four division games in their final six.
The Browns were as healthy as they’d been since Week 2, when Mayfield tore the labrum in his non-throwing shoulder against the Houston Texans. The offensive line was intact for the first time since Halloween, when Conklin dislocated his left elbow. The Nick Chubb-Hunt tandem was on the field for the first time since Oct. 10.
The Browns had averaged 28.4 points in their previous five games with Chubb and Hunt playing and 17 points without one or both of their dynamic duo.
That “whole” feeling was short-lived as Conklin suffered a right knee injury with 6:27 remaining in the first quarter, his knee buckling as he left the field. Sixth man Blake Hance took over again.
Mayfield was coming off one of the worst games in his career in a 13-10 home victory over Detroit, his disappointment prompting him to skip his required postgame interview. But he felt the best he had in a month, according to NFL Network. His litany of injuries includes his left shoulder, left heel, a bruised right knee and a groin injury.
A palpable disconnect between Mayfield and Stefanski over whether the injuries were the reason for Mayfield’s poor play seemed rectified last week, at least publicly. Considering the extent of the details Mayfield had revealed — among them that the labrum in his shoulder is totally torn and his leg went numb when he suffered the knee injury — one had to question whether Stefanski was giving the Browns the best chance to win by going with Mayfield over backup Case Keenum. Especially when Mayfield’s throws were high, low and wide against the Lions.
Sunday night was just as much of a mess as the Lions game, amplified by the special teams’ inability to count.
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The Browns put on an embarrassing showing on national television, saved only by four interceptions — with safety John Johnson III and cornerback Denzel Ward also notching picks. Takeaways that covered up for a way-too-risky Landry play call and Mayfield’s mind-boggling fumble.
But then again, everything about the Browns’ 2021 season has carried a feeling of one-upmanship, only in the wrong direction.
It seemed fitting that their playoff chances virtually ended in the same fashion, with one “Can you believe that just happened?” moment after another.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Mistakes doom Cleveland Browns’ playoff, AFC North title chances