Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, though, and it’s time to start blaming the Browns’ defense.
For the third time in three weeks, Cleveland squandered a fourth-quarter lead in spectacular fashion Sunday afternoon, allowing 21 points in a nine-minute span to hand the Chicago Bears a 38-31 victory at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The fall-from-ahead defeat followed similar collapses against New England and Jacksonville, turning a season of genuine progress for the Browns into another wasted December.
“I truly can’t answer the question why this is happening,” Cleveland safety Tashaun Gipson said. “Everybody has been preaching, ‘Finish, finish, finish,’ but that’s what we’re not doing. Unfortunately, it happened and we have to go back to the drawing board.
“We just can’t afford the errors we’re making in the fourth quarter. We have to be better than this.”
On that point, there is no disagreement.
Over the last three games, the Bears, Patriots and Jaguars have ravaged the Browns for six touchdowns and 49 points in the fourth period. Chicago used the steamroller approach in its comeback, while New England and Jacksonville delivered stinging shots to the heart.
Lousy late defense isn’t a new trend, either, as Cleveland has been outscored 128-66 in the fourth quarter this season.
Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton can attempt to spin those stats into something positive — and, no doubt, he will — but they’ll still smell worse than the West 3rd Street bridge on game days.
“The frustrating thing is each game has been different and the reasons why may be different,” Cleveland coach Rob Chudzinski said of the back-to-back-to-back demoralizing losses.
“The biggest thing is being able to correct them. Whatever the reasons are, we have to correct it. We want everybody here to be part of the solution.”
Unfortunately, it’s not going to be an easy fix.
Chicago gained 209 yards during its fourth-quarter assault as quarterback Jay Cutler, running back Matt Forte and wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall marched up and down the frozen field.
The loss of cornerback Joe Haden to a hip pointer didn’t help the Browns, but it also doesn’t explain why the Bears rushed for 103 yards on just 10 carries during the aforementioned period.
“I don’t know. I have no answer for you,” Cleveland linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “We didn’t make the plays to keep them out of the end zone and we just gave up another lead. We have to find a way to finish these games.”
Chicago also exposed the Browns’ other defensive deficiency, scoring on a Cutler-to-Marshall pass with 24 seconds left in the second quarter.
It marked the seventh time in the last eight games that Cleveland has been scored upon during the final two minutes of the first half — totaling nine scoring drives and 43 points.
Those are frightening numbers and prove that something is fundamentally wrong with Horton’s playcalling as the clock winds down. He only has two more chances to prove that his actions are as strong as his weekly words.
“I think we have the pieces in play, but we need to figure out how to make them all work together,” Browns safety T.J. Ward said. “We have the players and staff to do it, and I think this is the best team I’ve been on since I’ve been here.
“Whatever it is, we need to get over that hump and start winning games. We just have to do it, point blank, we just have to do it.”
Contact Brian Dulik at email@example.com.