For 18 and-a-half fleeting minutes, the Browns looked better than the Steelers. They looked like an evolved and matured version of Week 1's team.
Baker Mayfield produced the bump you'd expect from someone who replaced his incumbent. The Steelers couldn't solve the young, ravenous Browns defense. This was the Browns' statement game. This was their true insertion into the AFC North race. Winning on the road, in Pittsburgh, the season series. No more streaks.
Alas, this edition of Browns-Steelers ended up looking a lot closer to those of years past. For the final 41 and-a-half minutes, Pittsburgh's offense shined while the Browns' sputtered. Pittsburgh's veteran quarterback overcame adversity through adjustment while the Browns' rookie took hit after hit and struggled to move the ball. The media even asked the Browns' coach if he considered changing quarterbacks mid-game (he did not).
Week 1's encouraging tie seems farther than seven weeks back.
"Knowing that we were toe-to-toe with them the first time we played and and that we gave them one," Myles Garrett said when asked about the most disappointing part of Sunday's loss. "This should've been a lot closer. There were some plays we could've made (in) all three phases of the game, and we didn't take advantage of that."
Yes, the story of the season — missed opportunities — reared its head again Sunday. Greg Joseph missed another field goal; Damarious Randall just missed a potential game-changing interception. But the Browns offense scored 12 points during the competitive portion of the game. No matter how many opportunities the Browns' defense or special teams convert, that's hard to overcome.
The offense missed its share of opportunities, too. Instead of leading by 14 after the first quarter, the Browns led by six, continuing their season-long dearth of first-quarter touchdowns. Two turnovers yielded three points. For the season, they've only scored 36 points on 23 forced turnovers, an average of 1.6 points per turnover. Turnovers are supposed to swing games. They haven't for the Browns.
"We need to capitalize on the opportunity," Baker Mayfield said. "Our defense is playing well and capitalizing and getting the turnovers. We have to capitalize when we are (near the end zone). We have to score."
But they haven't been. Not enough, anyways. Sure, the Browns turned the unexpected free-kick recovery into a touchdown. But when Christian Kirksey tipped Ben Roethlisberger's pass away from JuJu Smith-Schuster and into the arms of Derrick Kindred, they only managed a field goal— despite starting at Pittsburgh's 36-yard line. Kindred's imposing strip of Stevan Ridley yielded nothing.
Week 1's edition of Browns Steelers looked like a sign, perhaps foreshadowing a change of guard. Sure, it was messy. The Browns felt they should've won. Maybe they should've. Maybe Sunday's game should've been closer.
Or maybe Sunday reiterated the Steelers' place atop the division — and showcased how much farther the Browns still have to climb.
"Here was a chance for us to take another step," Jackson said. "And I think our guys started the game that way. But as it kept going, which we knew it was gonna get tougher, it seems like we didn't go grab what I think we had a chance to go grab."