For the third consecutive Monday, the soul searching in Berea from the Cleveland Browns was long and it was heavy.
The magnitude of Cleveland's 30-0 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals was maddening for several reasons.
All week long, coach Mike Pettine and the players had a real vibe and confidence they could snap out of a two-game losing streak and catapult their postseason ambitions. Even though the Browns practiced without pads, the intensity level was noticeable. Players were logging extra hours in film study and the weight room. The moment was there for the taking.
But the most vexing part about the losing streak is the big picture. Cincinnati shattered the Browns' unlikely and arguably heroic climb in the standings. In his first year, Pettine himself said he could win press conferences, but could he win games? Would the honeymoon last with the lovable, bald-headed, hoodie-wearing football junkie?
Under Pettine, the Browns blossomed into a respectable football program most teams were weary to play.
With offensive skill players labeled as has-beens or unknowns; with a defense that mightily fought through struggles to become the heartbeat of the team; with a dark cloud of uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position – the Browns kept winning. Cleveland was the surprise Cinderella darling of the AFC.
That is all the way up until recent weeks. When the games got bigger, the Browns got smaller. And this young, hungry, determined team is still trying to figure out why.
"We are at a bit of a loss to explain what happened," Pettine said. "Emotionally it was very deflating."
Said wide receiver Josh Gordon: "I don't know what happened. We just couldn't get the ball rolling."
To be fair, the Browns ran into a buzzsaw when Cincinnati flew into town. Give credit where it's due.
The Bengals felt embarrassed by the first outcome, a 24-3 thrashing on national television, where Browns fans took over Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals felt slighted with all the national media attention hyped rookie quarterback Duke Johnson Jr. drew. The Bengals felt like the better team, sitting in first place, and they'd been here before, winning critical December games.
"That type of game humbles us all," Pettine said.
A 7-7 record won't cripple Cleveland's pride. There are goals, like the first winning season since 2007, the Browns still want to achieve this season.
And there's fine-tuning to do. Cleveland doesn't want to enter the offseason with the offense still sputtering, with the run defense deeply contributing to losses, with their once-lauded halftime adjustments now becoming ineffective.
"We've lost something, and we need to take this week and find it," Pettine said about the upcoming game against the Carolina Panthers.
A majority of the Dawg Pound members feel dissatisfied with a .500 record – which says a ton about the attitude Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer have brought to Cleveland, and brought quickly. For six straight seasons the Browns have won either four or five games, rightfully being the butt of many NFL-related jokes.
Pettine and Farmer delivered instant, league-wide credibility and raised the expectations. It's hard to see that through the foggy glasses three straight losses bring, but there are a dozen teams around the NFL that envy where the Browns are sitting right now.
On Sunday, a majority of national experts picked the Browns to win a critical late-season game. Cleveland dropped the ball, but moving forward, Pettine and his football team expect to be playing AND winning these types of games.