CHARLOTTE -- After a 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers, their faces were long and full of disappointment. Their body language was defeated. Besides the distant fuzz of headphones, the bus ride to the airport was noiseless.
For the umpteenth time this season, the Cleveland Browns defense surrendered a boatload of yards on the ground, and, yet again, the unit still did its part on the scoreboard.
Allowing 17 points to the Cam Newton-led Panthers would be considered a victory most weeks. Seventeen points is the lowest sum Cleveland has allowed since Nov. 6, but on Sunday, that wasn't enough to secure a much-needed victory.
"For stretches we played well defensively… It wasn't enough. Not good enough," coach Mike Pettine said.
The story during the Browns' four-game losing streak is simple. The defense has been on the field way too often, and, while gasping for air, has caved late in ball games.
The Panthers had the football for 38 minutes. The odds are going to be in the offense's favor when it has the football for two-thirds of the game. Two Panthers drives to start the game combined for 23 plays, 124 yards but only three points. But the Browns could only temper Carolina for so long.
Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart became the latest player to victimize the Browns on the ground. The Panthers posted 209 yards rushing, including 63 from Newton. A 30-yard dash up the middle from Stewart with 1:47 remaining in the fourth quarter sunk the Browns' hope for churning out a 9-7 record to end the season.
Stopping the run has stopped the Browns' defense from taking the leap toward a dominant unit. Why was this a continual habit all season long?
"A lot of missed assignments," said defensive end Billy Winn, who finished with a tackle and an interception.
The biggest swing of the game, one where the defense could've risen to the occasion, happened early in the fourth quarter. Jordan Cameron had just scored on an 81-yard touchdown, giving the Browns their first lead of the day, 13-10. But Newton and the Panthers quickly responded with seven plays and seven points, and it ended up being the defining drive of the game -- maybe even the season.
"When you score, especially when you go ahead late, that's the most important drive defensively of the game and we weren't able to stop them," Pettine said.
In the thick of the way the season is unfolding, it's hard for Browns defenders to grasp how important their unit has been to the team's seven victories. But the unit truly passed the baton around in terms of who played vital roles.
Unheralded heroes have stepped up on any given week, and Sunday was no different.
Fresh off the practice squad, linebacker Scott Solomon delivered a forced fumble and a hard-hitting tackle on a third down in the second half. It was the 26-year-old's first-ever action with the Browns, and the Rice alum might warrant more snaps next week in Baltimore.
"I tried to make the most of the opportunity," Solomon said. "We all need to step it up defensively."
But the dreariness losing brings overshadows bright spots like Solomon and rookie cornerback Pierre Desir, who started his first-ever game and held receiver Kelvin Benjamin in check for a mere 47 yards.
The Browns know they are better than their 7-8 record shows. The Cleveland defense knows surrendering 200 yards rushing back-to-back weeks is unacceptable.
That's why the long faces, the slumped shoulders and the quiet bus rides sting.
Next week's game against the Ravens is the final game of the season, and, just a few weeks ago, the Browns were sitting in a position to make it one of the most meaningful games since 1999. Instead of brimming with anticipation, Cleveland will have to embrace the role of spoiler.
"We got to seven wins and still had a lot of football left and we're still stuck there," Pettine said. "The difference between 10-6 and 6-10 is very marginal, so we've got to find a way to finish. Find a way to win."