BALTIMORE — The Browns put up a fight for their only national-television audience of the year. They extended the drama almost until midnight. They didn’t back down from the vaunted Ravens.
They boarded a plane back to Cleveland losers yet again.
The Browns dropped to 0-4 with a 23-16 loss Thursday night at soggy M&T Bank Stadium. The Browns have been in all four games in the fourth quarter, but have been left to ponder what might’ve been each time.
“We can all point to a play or two that might’ve made the difference,” said coach Pat Shurmur, whose team has lost 10 straight. “Our guys battled hard, but we have to find a way to get the victory.
“We’re close in a lot of ways. But until we quantify that with a win, we have a lot of work to do.”
The Browns gave themselves the chance for a season-altering upset, but couldn’t take the final step. Brandon Weeden’s pass from the 18-yard line on the last play never had a chance, sailing harmlessly out of the back of the end zone as receiver Greg Little jumped futilely.
“I got hit in the stomach and the ball took off,” Weeden said. “I really didn’t give us a chance. That’s on me.”
After scratching and clawing, and occasionally shooting themselves in the foot, the Browns put together a final march. The drive started at their 10 with 1:05 left and Weeden moved the ball into striking distance with a series of underneath catch-and-runs.
At the last second, Ravens safety Ed Reed got a hand on a ball in the end zone for Jordan Norwood. A fourth-down jump ball into the left corner was knocked down, but an unnecessary roughness penalty gave the Browns the final shot from the 18 with two seconds left.
“There was hope, without a doubt,” Weeden said.
Hope often comes attached to defeats in Cleveland. So Weeden’s 320 yards can’t be fully enjoyed. Or Trent Richardson’s 104 yards from scrimmage (47 rushing, 57 receiving) and 1-yard touchdown run around the left edge. Or Phil Dawson’s field goals from 50, 51 and 52 yards.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Weeden, who went 25-for-52 with an interception and a 59.8 rating. “That being said, I’m proud as hell of this football team. They fought their (behinds) off.”
The Browns were within 9-7 at halftime and 16-10 in the third quarter. Then came the most important 12 seconds of the night.
Ravens cornerback Cary Williams turned into Reed for one pivotal play. Weeden morphed into so many of his predecessors – Tim Couch, Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson – on the same snap.
The Browns were 43 yards from the end zone and a shocking lead over the heavily favored Ravens (3-1). Then it happened. What usually happens when the Browns visit the house built for Art Modell.
On third-and-5 from the Baltimore 43-yard line, Weeden looked left for rookie Travis Benjamin, who was running a 6-yard out. The route wasn’t crisp and the pass a bit behind, and Williams stepped in front. With the ball securely in his arms, he sprinted 63 yards for a touchdown.
The Ravens led by 13 with 15:15 to play.
“It was on (Benjamin’s) back hip a little bit and the guy made a great play,” Weeden said. “It was not out in front enough. I’d like to have that one back.”
Cleveland has lost nine straight to the Ravens – every game coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco have participated in for Baltimore. The Browns have lost 12 straight in the AFC North -- Shurmur is 0-8 – while the Ravens have won 10 in a row.
The Browns are 0-4 for the third time since 1999, joining Chris Palmer’s expansion team and Eric Mangini’s 2009 squad.
When the biggest play of the game needed to be made, Williams made it. He looked like Reed – the free safety destined for the Hall of Fame – has so many times before in this one-sided rivalry. Reed has 10 interceptions and three touchdowns against the Browns. Williams had the first of his five-year career.
“The guy jumped the route and made a good play,” Shurmur said.
Flacco made a series of throws into tight windows in the second half, keeping the Browns at arm’s length. He finished 28-for-46 for 356 yards, a touchdown, an interception, an 83.2 rating and a 1-yard rushing touchdown. Receiver Anquan Boldin caught nine passes for 131 yards.
When the Browns were faced with another opportunity to make a game-changing play, they couldn’t. A leaping Little had what would’ve been a 34-yard touchdown go through his hands with less than five minutes left. It would’ve cut the deficit to three, but turned into his second drop of the game.
Shurmur threatened this week to take away playing time if the drops continued and may have to follow through. Weeden threw a great pass to beat the blitz after running back Chris Ogbonnaya stopped Ray Lewis’ charge through the middle.
“It was a tough catch, but if I want to be the receiver I know I can be, I just gotta come down with it,” said Little, who had four catches for 77 yards, including a 43-yarder on the lone touchdown drive. “Great receivers make great plays. I want to make plays people remember.”
Shurmur wasn’t without blame. He was penalized 15 yards on the drive for unsportsmanlike conduct for protesting a legitimate intentional grounding penalty.
“I can’t do it,” Shurmur said. “It’s an emotional game, but I’ve got to make sure I keep my emotions in check.”
The Browns suffered three injuries at safety.
Strong safety T.J. Ward had his right hand in a cast but said he didn’t know if it was broken. Free safeties Usama Young and rookie Tashaun Gipson, who alternated series to begin the game, suffered knee injuries. Shurmur said it was too early to know the severity.
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