The Browns' bid for their biggest comeback of the season came up short on a Sunday in which they were playing without a slew of familiar faces at numerous spots across the field.
As a result, Cleveland's hopes of clinching its first trip to the playoffs since 2002 will come down to the final game of the season.
Playing without their top four wide receivers and four other starters, the Browns were on the doorsteps of a game-tying touchdown but were stuffed on fourth-and-1 at the Jets' 16-yard line with 1:31 to play. Cleveland fell to the Jets, 23-16, at MetLife Stadium, and will now need to beat the Steelers next week at FirstEnergy Stadium to advance to the postseason.
"They beat us," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "I got out-coached. We got outplayed. We did the things you can't do.
"What is ahead of us is everything that we set out to do this season. It is all still right there. We have to make sure that we are very honest about the tape tomorrow when we look at it together and then identify, correct and move on. Then Wednesday, we are getting back to work."
The Browns fell to 10-5 with the loss but still have control of their postseason destiny. The Jets moved to 2-13 with their second straight win.
The Browns entered Sunday needing a win and some help from one of three other games around the league to clinch a playoff berth. They got that assistance in dramatic fashion, as the Steelers came back from 17 points to defeat the Colts and clinch the AFC North. Cleveland just couldn't hold up its end of the bargain, as it struggled to overcome the loss of its top four wide receivers, two starting linebackers and two starting offensive linemen against a hungry Jets team that held a double-digit lead for the majority of the game.
Stefanski and players did not entertain any avenues for excuses during their post-game press conferences.
"That has nothing to do with the results of this game," Stefanski said. "We got beat. We had plenty of guys. We had all of the guys we needed, and we did not get it done."
Still, the Browns, down by 17 midway through the third quarter, made it interesting as they crossed into the red zone with less than 2 minutes to play. A 9-yard pass from Baker Mayfield to Austin Hooper set up a fourth-and-1 at the Jets' 16. Mayfield attempted a quarterback sneak but was stripped of the ball by Tarell Basham. Kareem Hunt recovered it and attempted to take it for a first down, but rules prevent a player from advancing a fumble, and Hunt was short.
"It was inches. Feel good about that," Stefanski said. "Again, we just can't lose the ball on a sneak. It just can't happen."
Mayfield, playing without four of his favorite targets, completed 28 of a career-high 53 pass attempts for 285 yards. He fumbled three times, and the Jets pounced on two of them and turned them into a combined 10 points.
"I just need to hold onto the damn ball. Plain and simple, I have to hold onto the damn ball," Mayfield said. "I failed this team. We had exactly what we needed to win this game, and I did not do good enough."
Cleveland couldn't get anything going on the ground and was limited to a season-low 45 rushing yards. TE Austin Hooper led the Browns with seven catches for 71 yards while Ja'Marcus Bradley, who was elevated from the practice squad Saturday, caught five passes for 60 yards.
The Browns entered their Week 16 preparations knowing they'd likely be without RG Wyatt Teller for a second consecutive week. On Saturday, though, they placed six players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, a group that included their top four wide receivers — Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, KhaDarel Hodge and Donovan Peoples-Jones — and starting LBs B.J. Goodson and Jacob Phillips. Shortly before Sunday's game, LT Jedrick Wills Jr. was ruled out with an illness.
"It is pretty much 2020 all in 24 hours," Mayfield said. "This is what happens, and you have to adapt and change. It is not an excuse.
"There is no excuse. Yeah, it sucks that we did not have our guys, but we believe in the guys we have in this locker room, no matter who it is. That is why they are here. That is why they are Cleveland Browns. That is why they were brought here. We suited them [up]. We believe in them, and I told every single one of those guys that. There is no excuse."
The Browns fell into a 17-point hole early in the third quarter, when Sam Darnold found Jamison Crowder on a 30-yard touchdown pass. The deficit was the largest the Browns had seen since Week 6 against the Steelers.
Sheldon Richardson's block of a 50-yard Sam Ficken field goal attempt later in the quarter was the momentum boost the Browns needed and set up their first touchdown. Nick Chubb capped a nine-play, 60-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown, his 11th of the year, to slice into the Jets' lead with 2:56 left in the third quarter.
Cleveland scored again on the following possession, a 12-yard, 83-yard march that was capped by a Hunt touchdown run. Cody Parkey's extra point hit the upright, but the Browns trailed by just 4 with 12:38 to play.
The Jets, after forcing a Mayfield fumble deep inside Browns territory, extended their lead to a full touchdown on a Ficken field goal with 2:52 to play before the Browns mounted their final drive.
The Browns couldn't get much going in the first half, as they rushed for just 4 yards while finding sporadic success through the air with their tight ends. Mayfield was sacked an uncharacteristic three times while completing all but one of his passes to tight ends or running backs.
"We had exactly what we needed to win this game, and I did not do good enough," Mayfield said. "I am proud of these guys being able to step up. These guys did not even think they were going to play. For anybody to criticize them, shame on you. Put it on me for not doing my job, for not playing at a high level like I should have and for not getting these guys going and finishing out this game."
Two big plays by the Jets turned the tide in the first half.
The Jets took the lead late in the first quarter on a trick play pass from wide receiver Jamison Crowder, who took the ball on an end-around and found a wide-open Braxton Berrios for a 43-yard touchdown.
On the ensuing possession, Mayfield was stripped on a sack by Frankie Luvu, and the Jets recovered deep inside Browns territory. Darnold's 11-yard touchdown pass to TE Chris Herndon extended the Jets' lead to 13-3 with 13:33 left in the first half.
"Ultimately, it is going to come down to doing your job and playing with the proper technique, including your alignment," Stefanski said. "Those are the type of things you have to do to be sound in the back end."
The Browns will look to play their soundest football of the season next Sunday in the ultimate win-or-go-home scenario.
"Backs against the wall," Mayfield said, "and we have to win to get in."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Jets