For nearly the entire game, Brian Hoyer bested Joe Flacco, Andrew Hawkins– not Steve or Torrey Smith -- was the most dangerous threat on the field and the Cleveland Browns outplayed the Baltimore Ravens.
But what the Browns found out in their 23-21 loss on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, is that minor miscues in the fourth quarter can offset playing 50 minutes of superior football.
"I thought for the bulk of it the players played well enough to have a victory," said Browns coach Mike Pettine. "I put this one on me. We didn't coach well enough to win today."
Pettine's statement is bold and a noble one. His players quickly suggested in the locker room no loss should ever be squarely placed on the head coach.
"That doesn't make any sense," said cornerback Joe Haden when he was told about Pettine's comments. "He did a great job out there. We had a lot of chances to win, and there are a lot of things we could have done better, but we just didn't finish."
Because of the bye week's early arrival, the Browns will have two weeks to figure out which part of this loss was on coaching, and which part was on the players.
When the Browns gather Monday to review the film perhaps no player will be clinching his teeth in more irritation than Haden. The Pro Bowl cornerback did a terrific job most of the afternoon marking many members of the Ravens' receiving corps – one of the most underrated units in the AFC North.
With 1:28 left in the game, on a second-and-five from the Browns' 45-yard line, it appeared Haden was expecting some type of slant or out route from Steve Smith. Haden slowed down in his coverage, while Smith blew by him. The Ravens dialed up a go-route to catch the Browns off-guard, Flacco hit the veteran Smith in stride, the Ravens were in business at the 13-yard line and three plays later Justin Tucker booted the winning 32-yard field goal.
"We pride ourselves on going on the field, making plays and getting stops and I just didn't do that today," said Haden.
This loss wasn't just on Haden and the rebuffed secondary. It was a slow and team-wide unraveling that began in the fourth quarter -- quite the turn of events following Hoyer's ability to engineer three 80-yard touchdown drives in the first 45 minutes of the game.
With 10:51 left in the fourth quarter, the Browns' defense trotted off the field following a humongous fourth-and-one stop from Jabaal Sheard. It was one of the few times the defense was able to stuff the surprising Ravens rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (18 carries, 91 yards, 1 touchdown).
All the offense needed to do was slowly move the ball down the field, pound in another touchdown from one of the rookie Baby Backs and walk into their bye week with a borderline stunning 2-1 record. It seemed like that prophecy was about to become the Browns' reality when Taylor Gabriel dove to catch a deep Hoyer pass 50 yards in the air, that got stuck in the swirling Cleveland winds. Gabriel raced to his feet and wound up with a 70-yard gain and the ball on the Ravens' 9-yard line.
Then, the pipes started leaking until they ultimately burst, again. Terrance West (12 carries, 36 yards) ran from side-to-side for a loss, Hoyer was sacked on second-down and then was penalized for throwing the ball over the line of scrimmage on third-down. Inexplicably, Billy Cundiff's ensuing field goal attempt was blocked off the edge from Baltimore.
"You can't blow opportunities like that," said Pettine. "We need to be more on point when we get opportunities like that to take advantage of them – not go backwards."
Blaming the Browns' offense is a tough accusatory proposition. For the first time since 1969, the team has opened the season with three straight games scoring 21-points or more. But in the pass/fail league that Pettine has clearly communicated to the Browns, Cleveland failed when it mattered most.
Hoyer's third-down pass right before the two minute warning was a touch behind Hawkins. It would be the last time the Cleveland offense would take the field.
"Really when it comes down to it, we made a lot of plays but we didn't make them when we really needed to," said Hoyer, who at one point completed 14 straight passes. "In this league, you have to do it when it's on the line. We did it last weekend; we didn't do it this week. As good as we felt the whole game, when it comes down to critical moments, we just have to make more plays."
Twelve penalties for 94 yards hurt, but none look sloppier than the two 12-men in the defensive huddle infractions in goal-to-go situations. The ball may have only been spotted a few yards closer because of the half-the-distance rule, but Baltimore used both penalties to score touchdowns.
Where was the miscommunication? How does it get cleaned up?
"We have to do better," said linebacker Karlos Dansby, who finished with five tackles. "We have to play technically sound and make better plays. That's the nuts and bolts of it right there."
With 2:35 left in the fourth quarter, Baltimore lined up to punt. It could've been the last time the Ravens touched the football. Punter Sam Koch blasted the football up in the air towards Travis Benjamin. Instead of fair catching the ball right near the 20-yard line, Benjamin let the ball bounce and eventually stop on the 7-yard line.
Why didn't Benjamin fair catch that ball? Did he have a mental lapse, or was the play just bad luck? The reversal in field postion made Spencer Lanning eventually punt from the end zone and helped the odds of Tucker's field goal to be of the chip-shot variety.
"I wasn't afraid at all," Benjamin said in the locker room. "I got up under the ball correctly and at the last minute, a gust of wind blew it and it went past my hand. I didn't want to go back and reach for the ball, so I just let it pass."
Earlier in the game, on a 39-yard trick pass play from Hoyer to Johnny Manziel – a brilliant call, by the way – West was flagged for an illegal shift.
Did the Browns get caught up overthinking their mistakes during a game, which led to even more?
Pettine and the veteran leaders will have 14 days to pinpoint the big areas of improvement before traveling to Tennessee to take on the Titans.
"I think it's important not to worry about what happened the previous drive or the previous play – it's important to just focus on the play that you're on," said Thomas following the loss. "[We] can't worry about something bad that happened the previous series – or something good, because when you get the momentum, you can't relax."