By Stephen Hawkins
ARLINGTON, Texas — The Cleveland Browns were already hampered with starting cornerback Joe Haden injured.
All those penalties against the defensive backs who did play certainly didn’t help, especially on the drive that allowed the Dallas Cowboys to force overtime.
Safety T.J. Ward was called for unsportsmanlike conduct for a hard hit that knocked a ball loose and one of his teammates out of the game. And Sheldon Brown got a 35-yard pass interference penalty that set up a tying field goal for Dallas, which then won 23-20 in overtime Sunday.
“Either we start slow or finish pretty strong, or we start fast and don’t finish,” Ward said. “That’s kind of been our problem this year. We just have to figure out how to close things out.”
The Browns (2-8) have now lost five games by a touchdown or less, this one after building a 13-0 halftime lead.
Buster Skrine, who replaced Haden (abdominal injury) in the lineup, was called for illegal contact on consecutive plays in the second quarter. Skrine then got called for pass interference before Dallas scored a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth period.
Ward, who had a pass interference call against him, initially said the defensive penalties weren’t the right calls. Seven were against the secondary.
“Maybe a couple. But not as many as they called. What are you supposed to do when a receiver is pushing you?” Ward said. “I felt like we were playing one-handed out there.”
The Browns got the ball back with 5 minutes left in regulation when Frostee Rucker sacked Tony Romo, forcing a fumble that the defensive end recovered at the Cleveland 28. They were stopped on fourth down from the 1 when tight end Jordan Cameron wasn’t able to catch the ball in bounds.
But after stopping Dallas on three running plays and using all their timeouts, the Browns got another chance.
Joshua Cribbs had a 21-yard punt return, plus an additional 15 yards tacked on for a questionable call against Dallas (5-5). John Phillips was called for a horse collar though the replay showed he actually grabbed hold of Cribbs’ hanging dreadlocks.
Brandon Weeden threw a 17-yard TD pass to Benjamin Watson, putting Cleveland up 20-17 with 1:07 left.
It was then on a pass Romo threw toward Kevin Ogletree that Ward delivered a hit that knocked the ball loose. That also put the receiver and Skrine on the ground and drew a penalty for what officials called a shoulder-to-helmet hit.
Skrine left the game with what coach Pat Shurmur called a concussion, and didn’t return.
Ward said he aimed at the chest, and insisted that is where he hit Ogletree.
Three plays later, Brown was called for pass interference while defending Dwayne Harris along the right sideline. The ball was marked at the Browns 14, from where Dan Bailey kicked the tying field goal four plays later.
“I thought the ball landed out of bounds. I thought we both had hands on one another. I didn’t hit him,” Brown said. “He was lying on the ground hurt. I don’t know how he still got hurt. Then he came back in the next play. There might have been a little acting going on there.”
Bailey kicked a winning 38-yard field goal nearly 9 minutes into overtime after both teams had punted once.
On the final Dallas drive, Miles Austin appeared to make a catch, take a couple of steps and fumble the ball that was picked up by Cleveland. But the play was ruled incomplete, and the play was non-reviewable by replay though Shurmur called timeout hoping they would at least reconsider.
“I think I saw it a little bit differently,” Shurmur said.
Romo was sacked a career-high seven times, but completed 35-of-50 passes for 313 yards. Bryant had 12 catches for a career-high 145 yards.
Cleveland led 13-0 at half before Dallas scored on its first three possessions of the second half. The Cowboys went ahead 17-13 midway through the fourth quarter on Romo’s 28-yard toss to Bryant.
Weeden fumbled on a sack by Anthony Spencer, who recovered. But Romo gave it right back when he fumbled as he was hit trying to scramble. It was his first turnover in three games.
Trent Richardson fell just short of becoming the first Browns rookie with three straight 100-yard games. He finished with 95 yards rushing, and added 49 yards receiving.
Weeden was 20-of-35 for 210 yards with the two scores to Watson, who had four catches for 47 yards.
“We battled, we made a play late in the game,” Weeden said. “We thought we finished. … We’ve been in a lot of close games this year. Just having been able to finish. I don’t know the answer.”
Browns kicker Phil Dawson, who grew up in the Dallas area, extended the NFL’s longest active field goal streak to 25 by hitting from 51 and 47 yards. He’s 19-of-19 this year.