EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — In six weeks, Super Bowl XLVIII will be played on the same field the Browns occupied Sunday on a 70-degree afternoon. The Browns couldn’t have looked further from a championship team if they had moved to Antarctica.
The Browns played arguably their worst game of a miserable season that continues to spiral out of control. They dropped passes in the end zone, imploded in the red zone and threw interceptions. They were gashed for 208 yards rushing, couldn’t force a turnover from rookie quarterback Geno Smith and allowed four scoring drives of at least 79 yards.
They were outclassed by another non-playoff team, falling 24-13 to the Jets at MetLife Stadium.
“Not happy with that game. It’s unacceptable,” coach Rob Chudzinski said. “It was a tough game to swallow. Execution was poor in a number of situations.”
The Browns dropped their sixth straight and have lost nine of 10. They are 4-11 in Chudzinski’s first year and need a win in the finale next week in Pittsburgh to match last season’s win total.
The Jets (7-8) had lost four of five, but rallied in an attempt to save coach Rex Ryan’s job.
“Honestly, guys, there’s nothing really I can tell you all, we got smacked,” said cornerback Joe Haden, who played with a sore hip. “The team we have and the players we have, I was never expecting this to be like this. It’s got to change. This isn’t good enough at all.”
The weekly collapse by the defense came earlier and lasted longer than in the previous three games — and was just as devastating.
After blowing fourth-quarter leads in three straight weeks, the Browns began to come apart late in the second quarter. They never got themselves back together.
An Edwin Baker 5-yard run gave the Browns a 10-0 lead — it should’ve been more — with 6:47 left in the first half. The Jets weren’t fazed and went 80 yards for a touchdown and 79 yards for a 21-yard Nick Folk field goal as time expired to tie the game.
The Browns helped, as Jason Campbell overthrew tight end MarQueis Gray on third down, precipitating a punt. The Jets seemed content to run out the clock with 34 seconds left, but Bilal Powell took an inside handoff 39 yards on the first play.
The fourth-quarter breakdowns have rightly received the most attention, but the end-of-half problems are also alarming. The Browns have given up a scoring drive in the last two minutes of the first half in eight of the last nine games. The opposition has scored 53 points on 11 scoring drives.
“If I had the answers, this defense would definitely come and show up when it’s crunch time, but I truly don’t have the answers for that,” free safety Tashaun Gipson said.
“It’s been a recurring theme,” Chudzinski said.
A halftime to straighten things out solved nothing.
Smith broke the tie 46 seconds into the fourth quarter with his second touchdown toss to receiver David Nelson, this one from 5 yards. Nelson was signed by the Browns in the offseason, then cut after the preseason because his knee was slow to recover following surgery.
Smith entered the game with 21 interceptions, four fumbles and a league-low 62.9 rating. Not only did he not kill the Jets with a mistake, he won the game, finishing it with a 17-yard touchdown scramble with 3:19 left for the 24-13 lead. He went 20-for-36 for 214 yards and a 91.7 rating. He added 48 yards on 10 rushes.
“I’m pretty sure anybody coming here playing against him expected to get turnovers against him,” Gipson said. “But no turnovers for him, so I guess he put his foot in my mouth. I have nothing but respect for him after this game.
“I respected him coming into this game, but he’s still a rookie, and I was hoping to take advantage of some of his mistakes. But he didn’t make mistakes. He made the right reads, the right throws and kept the ball when he needed to. He was able to move the ball efficiently for their offense and he was able to score points when they needed it.”
The Browns made life comfortable for the quarterback they bypassed in the draft. Despite what Chudzinski called “quite a bit” of blitzing, the Browns didn’t register a sack or quarterback hit. The only time they made contact with Smith was after runs, including a late shove by Gipson out of bounds that drew an unnecessary roughness penalty.
“We just weren’t able to get home,” Chudzinski said.
The Jets converted 12 of 18 third downs, allowing them to sustain drives of 80, 79, 81 and 80 yards.
“It was just a poor performance on the defensive side of the ball. Flat out,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “There’s no way else to say it. We didn’t come ready to play. They handed it to us.
“I think defensively today we didn’t give our offense a chance. They were watching the game the majority of the time.”
The offense wasn’t without blame. The 10-0 lead could’ve been 21-0 if not for dropped passes and overall red zone ineptitude.
Greg Little dropped a throw over the middle in the end zone in the first quarter, and the Browns settled for the first of two short Billy Cundiff field goals.
Little, who was replaced by Brian Tyms at times, wasn’t alone. Josh Gordon had two drops on a second-quarter drive, including third down in the end zone on a fade from the 1-yard line. Chudzinski called the same play on fourth down with Gordon matched up against rookie cornerback Dee Milliner, but Gordon juggled it as he went out of bounds.
“I figured if we’d capitalized on one of those plays it would have put us over the top, but just couldn’t get it done,” said Gordon, who had six catches for 97 yards and saw his touchdown streak stopped at five games. “That’s unlike me. It was just one of those off games, I guess, but hopefully I can focus in a little better and eliminate some of those.”
The Browns ran 20 plays in the red zone, including 13 from the 10 or inside, and came away with a touchdown and a field goal. They weren’t much better in the rest of the field.
Campbell fell to 1-6 as the starter and missed on a few crucial throws. He went 18-for-40 for 178 yards, two interceptions and a 37.3 rating.
“We haven’t been dropping balls, we haven’t been missing wide-open receivers,” Campbell said. “Things just started to unravel today. It’s just kind of pressing on guys because we just want to win so badly.”
The young Browns were supposed to improve as the season went along. Instead, they’ve taken steps backward as Chudzinski’s first season careens toward the finish.
“You can’t imagine how I feel about that,” he said of the six-game skid. “I bare all of the responsibility. I’m the head coach of this team.”
His message to the fans?
“Hang in there. We’ll get it right,” he said.
Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.