Had Duke Johnson Jr. and the Cleveland offense put up a respectable performance, it probably would've been all for not.
Before we delve into what transpired against the Cincinnati Bengals, let's quickly point out the main reason Cleveland is in this playoff race is the resurgent mid-season performance from the defense. The secondary is ranked as the best in the NFL from ProFootballFocus.com. Craig Robertson and Jim Leonhard have made the losses of Karlos Dansby and Tashaun Gipson feel minimal.
The only knock on the Browns' defense was its ability to stop the run – which hadn't been an issue for several weeks.
And then Sunday happened.
Cincinnati decimated the Cleveland run defense from start to finish. The 244 yards allowed were a season-high.
Think about that.
From all the gashings that took place at the hands of Baltimore, Jacksonville and Houston, Sunday's loss was by far the worst.
Running back Jeremy Hill was the villain again and this time, he had the last laugh. The burly rookie from LSU rushed for 148 yards on 24 carries and found the end zone twice in the first half. He ran over, around and by Cleveland defenders.
"We hit them with a lot of stuff they hadn't seen before," Hill said of his dominant day.
"He did talk a lot but he backed it up with his play today," Browns linebacker Jabaal Sheard said of Hill.
Sheard said the defense was prepared for Cincinnati to ram the football down its throat. But Cleveland just didn't have an answer.
The Bengals had four drives of at least nine plays, none more gritty and imposing than the opening 14-play, 81-yard touchdown. Cincinnati won the time of possession battle 38:52 to 21:08. Quarterback Andy Dalton only had to complete 14 passes, posting a 53.9 quarterback rating during a mostly ho-hum performance.
But Dalton didn't matter. He didn't come close to mattering.
The Browns couldn't stay off the field, they couldn't tackle Hill and they couldn't match Cincinnati's energy.
"As a staff we'll meet; we'll talk about it because this isn't Major League Baseball where we have 100 and however many games," Pettine said of the lack of an edge from Cleveland. "In the NFL, it's not how you start; it's how you finish. We earned the right by playing the way we did to have meaningful games, but when you get those meaningful games you have to make them count. We obviously didn't today."