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Brian Dulik: Better showing not good enough for Browns

So close, yet so far.

The Browns had a golden opportunity to make a statement Sunday and knock out the bully on their block - inside the bully`s own house, no less.

They got a pair of long kickoff returns from Joshua Cribbs, had two judgment calls by the officials go their way and built a 15-point lead over their archrival.

Cleveland even got the fans at Heinz Field so riled up they booed the Steelers off the field at halftime.

Yet, it still wasn`t enough to win the game.

Battle-tested Pittsburgh exploited the Browns` inexperience when it mattered most and rallied for a 31-28 win.

"We let one get away,`` Browns coach Romeo Crennel lamented. "We were up. If we had played in the second half the way we played in the first, we win the game. We`re disappointed.``

In reality, the Browns didn`t need to match their superb first-half performance to beat the hated Steelers. They only had to play moderately well and not shoot themselves in the foot.

No such luck.

It was a valiant effort by the visitors, but fell in the same column in the standings as their 34-7 opening-day drubbing by Pittsburgh.

"It doesn`t mean anything because we still lost,`` Browns quarterback Derek Anderson said. "That`s why we play the game, to win. I`m proud of the way we fought, but it`s still not a win.

"We put ourselves in a great position and obviously didn`t do enough in the second half to take it home.``

There was plenty of blame to go around.

* Jamal Lewis started the Steelers` comeback by losing a fumble in Browns territory midway through the third quarter. Cleveland held a 21-9 lead and had every ounce of momentum on its side before the miscue.

* Anderson failed to lead the offense to a first down over a 34-minute, 24-second stretch. The drought began in the second quarter and ended with a minute left in the game.

* Willie McGinest, one of the few Browns with big-game experience, failed time and time again to keep Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the pocket.

* Cleveland`s defense allowed Pittsburgh to convert four straight third-down conversions in the fourth. The plays covered 10, 6, 18 and 9 yards and resulted in 15 Steelers points.

* Last but not least, Darnell Dinkins committed a holding penalty on a punt return with 1:04 left. Instead of starting their drive near the Pittsburgh 42, the Browns were pushed back to their own 33. It proved fatal when Phil Dawson`s 52-yard field goal fell just short.

If there is any consolation in defeat, it`s that the Browns refused to point fingers at one another, accepting blame as a team.

"Willie stood up after the game and told everyone, ‘If you want to blame somebody, blame me,` but a game is never one guy`s fault,`` Cribbs said. "This is a team. We all can point fingers at ourselves because we could have done something better.

"Everybody in the locker room believes that, which is why I`m proud of my teammates and I`m proud to play for the Cleveland Browns.``

As he should be, because the Browns left Pittsburgh just one game out of a wild-card playoff spot.

Catching the Steelers in the AFC North is unlikely after dropping two full games behind, but battling them again in the postseason is realistic.

All Cleveland`s players need to do is look at their remaining schedule - seven very winnable games - to bounce back from what was a disappointing, but far from demoralizing, defeat.

"I don`t think we were uncomfortable at all in this atmosphere today,`` Browns running back Jason Wright said. "Things just didn`t click later in the game. We`ll be all right.``

Contact Brian Dulik at sports@ohio.net.

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