Two extra-strength aspirin. A gallon of Gatorade. A large chocolate milkshake.
The Browns better go with their best cure, because they can’t let the hangover from the humbling 41-20 loss to the Bengals on Sunday linger. The Steelers visit this week in a make-or-break matchup.
The winner will improve to 5-6 and stay in the mix for the second AFC wild-card spot. The Jets and Dolphins are tied for the spot at 5-5, with the Browns, Steelers, Ravens, Titans, Raiders and Chargers hanging on for dear life at 4-6.
A 9-7 record will probably be good enough to reach the playoffs in the AFC and earn a trip to New England or Indianapolis for the first round. The loser of Cleveland-Pittsburgh is all but eliminated from the chase, which would make for a long final five weeks.
So there’s no time to sulk after the deflating loss to the Bengals.
The Browns say they weren’t overwhelmed by the magnitude of their most important game since 2007, and point to the abnormal plays that decided the outcome as proof. I agree that the breakdowns in punt protection had more to do with lack of focus and lack of cohesion due to lineup changes following the injury to captain Quentin Groves than with panicking in the big moment.
But good teams, playoff teams, find a way to stem the tide. The Browns didn’t.
“It’s a point and time where everybody has to stand up, focus a little bit more and work to make that play and work to make that difference that stops the bleeding,” coach Rob Chudzinski said.
The offense not only failed to score touchdowns early, it couldn’t sustain a drive during the fateful second quarter. Quarterback Jason Campbell threw behind receiver Davone Bess on separate drives and a Mitchell Schwartz false start hurt another possession before running back Chris Ogbonnaya – it’s not good when he’s such a large chunk of the offense — fumbled and had it returned for a touchdown.
The defense has gotten a pocketful of free passes this year, including Sunday. It shouldn’t be let off the hook completely.
Cornerback Joe Haden played the best game of his four-year career with two interceptions, a touchdown and no catches allowed to A.J. Green when he was in coverage. So he’s absolved of any blame.
But despite holding the Bengals to 224 yards, including 93 passing by quarterback Andy Dalton, the defense failed in the moments when the game was decided.
It allowed three Dalton touchdown passes, raising the total to 14 allowed in the last five games, and couldn’t hold Cincinnati to a field goal during the second-quarter stampede until it was too late. After a 74-yard touchdown pass to Josh Gordon in the third quarter brought the Browns within 31-20 with plenty of time left, the defense allowed BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard to rush for 50 yards on six carries on the clinching touchdown drive.
Elite defenses bail out their team when the other units struggle. The Browns’ defense has played well overall — ranking fifth — but has fallen short in that vital department.
Haden was steaming after the game, with much of his fury toward the special teams. Gordon also mentioned lazy play. They’re not wrong. It’s just interesting that special teams are fair game for criticism when offense and defense in healthy locker rooms don’t openly criticize each other.
That’s because special teams are taken for granted. You hope they help win a game, but never expect them to cost you. Especially something as rudimentary as not getting a punt blocked. It hadn’t happened to the Browns in 20 years, then they almost had two — the 9-yard deflection doesn’t count — in a quarter.
The challenge facing Chudzinski and coordinators Chris Tabor, Ray Horton and Norv Turner starting early this morning is to snap the young team out of its funk. No time for self-pity, self-loathing or finger-pointing. The season isn’t over, the Steelers visit Sunday and the Browns must regain the confidence they took to Cincinnati.
The plan is simple, even if the execution isn’t.
Spend extra time on punt block and coverage, and go with a set lineup. Switching players and positions, like they did against the Bengals, is asking for trouble.
Get Campbell comfortable again. That starts with protection and continues with an emphasis on stretching the field. Believe it or not, those issues are related.
Finally, convince the players there’s plenty left to play for. It shouldn’t be too hard. They’re only a game behind the second wild-card spot and have a series of winnable games left.
The hangover can wait until after the season.
Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.