Browns safety Donte Whitner stood in front of his locker with a stone-faced look. Dressed in street clothes, remnants of eye black were still smeared on his cheeks.
Coming up for reasons why the Browns lost, 25-24, to the Indianapolis Colts were not easy answers to dig up.
"Playoff teams win these games," Whitner said.
That's the struggle for Browns defensive players as they staggered out of the locker room at FirstEnergy Stadium: The unit played like a playoff defense.
Cleveland forced four turnovers and harassed Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck all afternoon with a collection of timely blitzes. Luck finished with a season-low quarterback rating (59.8), was sacked three times and tossed two interceptions.
More amazingly, the Browns scored two touchdowns on defense.
Craig Robertson recovered a Paul Kruger forced fumble in the end zone in the first quarter and rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert snared a Luck pass in the third quarter, romping his way 21 yards for the pick-six. The unexpected play from Gilbert gave Cleveland a 21-7 lead in front of a roaring home crowd.
But Browns defenders watched helplessly as their teammates on offense struggled after the gracious lead was handed to them on a silver plate. Cleveland had seven drives in the second half; five of them resulted in punts, another was a three-and-out drive followed by a Billy Cundiff field goal and, on the final drive, Brian Hoyer's last pass of the game was intercepted.
Gasping for air on the Colts' final drive of the game, Cleveland's mighty defense finally buckled. Colts running back Daniel Herron was initially stuffed in the backfield on a critical fourth-and-one at the Browns' 3 but spun past Whitner for the first down. On the next play, Luck hurled a 1-yard laser to T.Y. Hilton for the receiver's second touchdown and 150th yard of the day.
"It's really tough to have the effort that we did and the kind of plays we made and not come through in the end," said Kruger, who forced a fumble, recovered another and registered a half-sack, getting him to 8.5 this season.
The resounding reaction from the defense afterward was it was the unit on the field with the lead and the game in its hands. Luck and the Colts' offense made one more play when it mattered. While fans and the media are pointing fingers toward the offense, the Browns defenders are pointing it toward themselves.
Filling in for Tashaun Gipson, safety Jim Leonhard had his best game of the season. His fourth-quarter interception on Luck and 34-yard return deep into Colts territory looked like it could've sealed the deal for the Browns. But a negative run, a 3-yard pass and an incomplete pass brought Cundiff on the field for a field goal attempt.
Leonhard, more than most, understands complementary football. In his three seasons with the Jets, New York often came up on the short end of the stick when the offense squandered opportunities to cash in points.
But Leonhard and other teammates realize it was the other way around earlier in the season. Hoyer and the offense bailed out the defense in wins against the Saints and Titans.
"Please don't try and split this team into offense and defense, it's not about that," said the veteran safety. "We are on the field defensively with the lead and in our minds we win that game."
Said cornerback Joe Haden, who had four tackles and a forced fumble: "Our job as a defense is to create turnovers, try to score points and get the ball back to the offense. Everything else is out of our control."
There is no sugarcoating how derailing this loss could be to Cleveland's playoff hopes. Coupled with victories from the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns all but have to win three straight to have a chance at playing football in January.
"This was definitely the worst loss we had this year," Haden said bluntly after the game.
So, where does the Browns' defense go from here?
Outside of a minor lapse against the Houston Texans on Nov. 16, the unit has been the backbone of Cleveland's success in the second half of the season. Even without the ball-hawking Gipson, the secondary is playing at an elite level and so is Kruger. Robertson finished with a team-high 12 tackles -- his third straight week leading the Browns in the category.
Whitner's unit is just going to keep plugging away, hoping for the best. But on Sunday night, they'll sit and wonder, "what if?"
"After four turnovers and two defensive touchdowns, it's really unacceptable," said Whitner about coming away with a loss. "That's the way we feel. We feel bad about this one."