The Browns, playing without starters at almost every position group, dug deep and came back from a 10-point deficit in unsavory circumstances Monday, but they couldn't deliver one final stop in a loss to the Raiders.
Daniel Carlson's 48-yard field goal as time expired sealed the Raiders' 16-14 victory at FirstEnergy Stadium and prevented the Browns from completing what was a dramatic comeback.
The Browns fall to 7-7 with the loss. The Raiders move to 7-7 with the win, and the AFC playoff race remains congested as ever with three games to play.
"Man, they fought hard," said special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who served as acting head coach with Kevin Stefanski sidelined (COVID-19). "The offense took a little time to get going, but once they got going, they did a great job in the second half. Our defense played hard all night. Just came up short in the end.
"We still have an opportunity. We are one game out of first place [of the AFC North]. We have three games left, and that is where the focus is going to be."
Monday's loss came on the heels of a turbulent week for the Browns, who entered the game — which was originally supposed to be played Saturday — with 19 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The group included QBs Baker Mayfield and Case Keenum and a combined seven other starters from both sides of the ball. The Browns, who practiced as a full team Thursday and Saturday, dressed 13 players who weren't on the gameday roster just one week earlier against the Ravens.
"It was tough, but I can't lie, I was excited before the game," DE Myles Garrett said. "We attacked it as a challenge. It was something new and something different. The guys who were next men up, they were ready to go and get out there, ready to make some big plays and they did. We just needed a couple more."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Bengals in Week 18
Nick Mullens, the Browns' third-string option at quarterback behind Mayfield and Keenum, led the team back in a resilient second half and connected on his first touchdown of the season with 3:45 to play to stake Cleveland to a short-lived, 14-13 lead. He finished 20-of-30 for 147 yards in his first action of 2021.
"It hurts," Mullens said. "Everybody is going to look at that one [play for each] player and just not being able to finish it. With the NFL, games are a chain-links of events. I think we had a lot of three-and-outs and just missed opportunities. You can't really pinpoint one reason why we lost. I think it just happened the way it happened. It really hurts."
Nick Chubb put the Browns on the board with a third-quarter touchdown run and cleared 1,000 yards for the season in the fourth. He amassed 91 yards on 21 carries while rushing behind a patchwork Cleveland offensive line that was missing multiple starters and utilizing Pro Bowl LG Joel Bitonio at left tackle.
Donovan Peoples-Jones led Cleveland receivers with four catches for 48 yards.
Raiders QB Derek Carr was up and down throughout the game but delivered when the Raiders needed him in the end. He completed 25-of-38 passes for 236 yards with an early touchdown and an interception.
The Browns took their first lead of the night with 3:45 to play after an impressive drive that featured multiple third-down conversions and was capped with a fourth-down touchdown pass by Mullens.
Mullens' biggest throw went to Peoples-Jones, who hauled in a 29-yard pass on third-and-3 to get Cleveland into Las Vegas territory. Chubb followed with a 12-yard run, and Peoples-Jones kept the sticks moving with an 11-yard catch on third-and-8. A holding penalty put Cleveland in a bit of a bind, but the Browns overcame it and sealed the 14-play possession on fourth-and-5, as Mullens found TE Harrison Bryant for a 6-yard touchdown.
Chase McLaughlin's extra point staked the Browns to their 14-13 advantage.
"We were just positive vibes the entire time," Mullens said. "Just focused on the next play. Just focused on what we had to do to get the job done. We were going to be determined to do that. Obviously, we came up short, but we had great persistence. Whatever happens, put it past us. Keep going. I really felt like there was more out there for us every time something happened."
Greedy Williams' interception on a deep ball stopped Las Vegas' first attempt to reclaim the lead. The Raiders, though, didn't go away, as they forced a three-and-out and took over possession with less than 2 minutes to play.
Carr's 12-yard, third-down pass to Zay Jones kept the chains moving, and he went to Jones again for 15 yards to put the Raiders in field goal range with 4 seconds to play. Carlson's kick went right down the middle, and the Browns were sent away with a tough loss.
"When you lose that type of game, that one is tough," Priefer said. "They are pretty down right now. We will have our job cut out for us this week in terms of coaches and getting them back up again and getting their spirits back up because they are young people. When you lose a game like that – a game we felt like we should have won there at the end against a good football team; they are a very good football team, a well-coached football team and they made the plays at the end, and that is a credit to them."
The Browns seized some momentum midway through the third quarter when the defense forced a turnover it desperately needed.
DT Sheldon Day and LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah combined to sack Carr, and Owusu-Koramoah punched it out of his hands. DE Porter Gustin recovered it at the Raiders' 47, and Cleveland's offense took immediate advantage of the short field. Chubb broke off a 24-yard run and found the end zone a few plays later on a 4-yard touchdown run to slice Las Vegas' lead down to 10-7.
The Browns simply couldn't get much going offensively in the first half and they fell behind early after surrendering a touchdown on Las Vegas' opening drive.
Carr didn't throw an incompletion on the Raiders' opening possession and he put the ball in the perfect spot for Bryan Edwards, who hauled in a 5-yard touchdown pass to stake the Raiders to a 7-0 advantage with 3:41 left in the first quarter.
Cleveland's best first-half possession came at the end, as the Browns drove 46 yards in 51 seconds but couldn't come away with points. Chase McLaughlin's 47-yard field goal attempt was wide right and short, and Cleveland was forced to take a 10-0 deficit into halftime.
"We did not extend drives in the first half, and that is really what you have to do," Mullens said. "You have to be able to stay on the field."
The Browns are back in action Saturday when they face Green Bay in a Christmas Day, national showcase game.
"It is preparation. It is mentality. It is attitude," Garrett said. "We need to look in the mirror. Everybody is doing something, and we are no different. We will be able to attack and bounce back from this."