The Browns came up one haymaker short in a wild fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium.
Cleveland's longest offensive play of the season put it ahead of the Carolina Panthers by a field goal with 9:59 to play. The Panthers answered right back to score what would be the game-winning touchdown in a 17-13 victory over the Browns, who were without starting quarterback Johnny Manziel for the entire second half because of a hamstring injury.
The loss was the Browns' fourth in a row and fourth straight game in which it scored just one offensive touchdown.
"It's frustrating, disappointing," coach Mike Pettine said. "We got to seven wins and still had a lot of football left and we're still stuck there. We had our chances today. We had our chances two weeks ago, but that's what the NFL is all about."
Trailing 10-6 and facing a third-and-6 at the Browns' 19, Brian Hoyer dropped back, read the defense, stood tough in the pocket and lofted a pass down the middle to Jordan Cameron. The athletic tight end took it in stride and ran untouched for the 81-yard go-ahead touchdown with 9:59 to play. Hoyer, who took a big hit on the pass, ran down the field and jumped in Mitchell Schwartz's arms to celebrate.
The Panthers were celebrating just a couple of minutes later, though, as they came right back on the ensuing possession with an efficient seven-play, 66-yard possession to regain the lead. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton bought time in the pocket and scrambled a bit before hitting Jonathan Stewart on a 9-yard touchdown pass with 7:07 to play.
"It is always disappointing when you start to get the edge but then they climb back on top of you but that is football, that is how the game goes," defensive end Billy Winn said. "They have a good offense with a really good quarterback."
The Browns moved into Carolina territory on their final drive, which began with a Hoyer interception that went back to Cleveland when Travis Benjamin recovered a fumble on the return. The drive fizzled at midfield, though, as a Hoyer slant to Josh Gordon on third-and-long was well short of the marker to force a punt.
The Browns never got the ball back, as Carolina ran out the clock with a number of big running plays. The Panthers rushed for 209, the second straight week the Browns have surrendered more than 200 on the ground.
"I thought (the team's edge) was better. It wasn't enough. Not good enough," Pettine said. "Like I said, they were for stretches they played well, but you've got to be a lot more consistent in this league if you want to win, especially on the road."
Hoyer was 7-of-13 for 134 yards to go along with 19 rushing yards. Rookie Isaiah Crowell received the lion's share of carries and finished with 55 yards on the ground.
Manziel finished 3-of-8 for 32 yards to go along with 3 rushing yards. All but 4 of the passing yards came on a 28-yard completion to Andrew Hawkins.
"My mindset has flipped from being a guy that you never know when you are going to get a chance to go in and trying to stay on top of your stuff to being the guy for a couple weeks," Manziel said. "Felt like I'm making progress throughout the weeks, felt like I'm making more progress throughout this game and to be sidelined by that that's tough. It hurts me and eats at me to not be out there with those guys."
The Browns sliced a 10-3 halftime deficit to four with 3:14 left in the third quarter on a 31-yard Garrett Hartley field goal. Defensive end Billy Winn set up the Browns with premium field position with a diving interception and a key third-down scramble from Hoyer moved Cleveland into manageable field-goal range.
For a second straight week, the Browns were on the wrong end of a massive time of possession gap in the first half, as the Panthers had the ball for more than 21 minutes. Though gashed for 124 rushing yards, Cleveland's defense was toughest inside its own territory and ultimately held its own and limited the deficit to 10-3 at the half.
Cleveland's stop on the first possession led to a missed field goal and another inside its own 5-yard line limited the Panthers to three points. The bend-but-don't-break defense came one play short of another big stop, as Newton gave the Panthers the lead with a 2-yard touchdown scramble on third-and-goal with 1:55 left in the half to cap a drive that milked 6:26 off the clock.
"That's the dangerous part of playing a guy like that," Pettine said. "You've got to defend the early part of the down and then the quarterback run can still get you."
Cleveland's offense stumbled out of the gate with a three-and-out on its opening possession but found some rhythm on its second. Manziel hit Hawkins for 28 yards to get things rolling and Hartley connected on his first field goal as a Brown from 43 yards to tie the score early in the second quarter.
Manziel's injury occurred after the Panthers' touchdown drive. On a designed run to the left, Manziel took an awkward hit from Luke Kuechly and Colin Jones. After briefly standing up, Manziel sat down and received assistance from trainers before he headed to the locker room.
The Browns close out the 2014 season next Sunday at Baltimore.
"You're putting yourself on the line every Sunday you go out there and you are putting your reputation on the line. To think that someone would tank or be ready to get out of there, that would be a disappointing thing," Hoyer said. "I don't think we have guys like that. I think we have guys that are very prideful and want to go out there and finish this on the right note."