Losses don't get much more heartbreaking than the one Cleveland experienced Monday at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The Browns, playing without starters at every position group because of a rash of COVID-19 cases, fought back from a 10-point deficit in the second half and briefly took the lead only to see it vanish at the last second when Daniel Carlson connected on a 48-yard field goal.
Our Takeaways start with a focus on the longest-tenured Browns player who has experienced his fair share of heartbreaks and high points along the way. On this night, he did it from a position he hadn't played since 2013, when he was a senior at the University of Nevada.
1. Joel Bitonio delivers gutsy, team-first performance in one of the toughest losses of his career
Even when Jedrick Wills Jr. and Wyatt Teller were lost to the COVID-19 list Wednesday, Joel Bitonio's plans hadn't changed. On Monday, he would start the 109th game of his career at left guard, the position he's manned since Day 1 when he joined the Browns as a 2014 second-round pick.
Then, on the heels of the game being delayed two days and the Browns set to return to practice Saturday, Bitonio heard the news and figured he was in for a dramatic change. The Browns' already depleted offensive line was down another player to COVID-19, RT James Hudson III, and the team was essentially out of options.
Bitonio was the Browns' emergency tackle and, well, this was an emergency.
"They're like, 'all right, you're up,' and I was like, 'let's do it,'" Bitonio said. "We don't have many other options, right?"
Even with Teller activated Sunday, the Browns rolled with one of the NFL's best offensive guards — Bitonio was named to his fourth straight Pro Bowl on Monday — at a position he hadn't played since college. And Bitonio, just like a number of other players who were tasked to step up in the face of some pretty significant adversity, performed at a high enough level to put the Browns in a position to win late in the fourth quarter.
The Browns, though, couldn't complete what would have been a dramatic comeback victory. The Raiders won on a last-second field goal, and Cleveland was dealt a heartbreaking loss that puts even more pressure on the final three games if the team hopes to return to the playoffs.
Bitonio has seen it all in his eight seasons with the Browns, and he's been on the wrong end of more than a few gut-punch losses. Monday's was one of the toughest, and it went beyond what happened on the field for 60 minutes against the Raiders.
"It hurt a lot," Bitonio said. "What we had to go through during the week and the guys who stepped up and put it all on the line. We were a play away. It did hurt. I've been a part of a few losses that hurt, but that's right up there."
When it was just Wills and Teller sidelined with COVID-19, the Browns planned to utilize Blake Hance at left tackle — a spot he manned early in the year when Wills was injured. The loss of Hudson, though, forced Cleveland into a tricky spot because it had already lost All-Pro Jack Conklin and super sub Chris Hubbard to season-ending injuries. Backup Michael Dunn has the versatility to play tackle, but the Browns concluded their best possible combination of five would feature Bitonio at left tackle and Dunn at left guard.
Teller returning Sunday was a nice bonus but didn't change the team's plans to move one of their best players to a brand new position.
"I think he had one day of work out there," said special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who served as acting head coach with Kevin Stefanski sidelined because of COVID-19. "That is the first time he has done that since college. It is a credit to he and a lot of other guys who stepped up – guys coming off the street playing special teams and guys who were on the practice squad."
Bitonio more than held his own and was a major reason why the Browns didn't allow a sack for a second consecutive game. Third-string QB Nick Mullens had plenty of time to throw on most plays, and Bitonio led the way on Nick Chubb's 4-yard touchdown run, which went straight behind him into the left corner of the end zone.
"Joel is a stud," Mullens said. "You talk about what it means to be a Cleveland Brown, obviously, Joel is the ultimate Cleveland Brown. Whatever is asked for him, he does. Obviously, he has done it for a long time here. Being able to share the huddle with those guys, it means a lot. They are a really good group. You can tell their chemistry. They work hard. They work together. They did a really good job up front."
Bitonio already had the respect of everyone around him inside the Browns locker room. Monday was simply another unique chapter that ultimately came with an unfortunate ending.
"It was a tough way to go down," Bitonio said. "The guys fought, and I appreciate that and I know the coaches appreciate that. Obviously it wasn't enough but we're going to be refocused. Hopefully we'll get a few more guys back and we'll be ready to play Christmas."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Raiders in Week 15
2. Garrett battles through groin injury
Myles Garrett played through a groin injury in Monday's fourth quarter but didn't miss more than a handful of plays. With Jadeveon Clowney (COVID-19) and Takkarist McKinley (ankle) sidelined, the Browns needed him.
Garrett, who received some brief attention in the team's blue medical tent between series, described himself as "sore" and said the injury was a new one.
"Everybody has to play through some pain or injury," Garrett said. "Everybody is dealing with something so I do not feel sorry for myself and do not want anyone feeling sorry for me. Get back and get ready for Christmas Day. We have another game."
Garrett was more concerned about McKinley, who was carted off the field in the third quarter. He spoke with McKinley just before the cart whisked him to the locker room.
"I told him to be optimistic, that we loved him and we were here for him," Garrett said. "Just keep his head up. I know he was hurting physically and mentally. I just wanted him to know we had his back. Whether it is in the game or off the field, whatever he needs, we are here for him."
Priefer had an interesting decision to make when the Browns, trailing 13-7, faced a fourth-and-5 from the Raiders' 6-yard line with less than 4 minutes to play.
The Browns could have gone with the short field goal and tried to get the ball back with the chance to tie with another field goal or win with a touchdown. Instead, Priefer opted to go for the end zone, and the Browns came through when Mullens found TE Harrison Bryant for a 6-yard touchdown.
Priefer said the decision came down to timing and … the Raiders punter, AJ Cole.
"If there were 7 to 8 minutes left, maybe, but we were concerned that we may not get great field position if they got a few first downs and punted the ball back to us," Priefer said. "They have a good punter. We may not have had great field position going back so to me, that was a no-brainer."