PITTSBURGH - First place in the AFC North. A four-game winning streak. A rivalry revitalized.
So much was there for the Browns` taking Sunday at Heinz Field - and all of it got away. Just like Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger slipping through the grasp of aging Browns linebacker Willie McGinest.
Steelers 31, Browns 28.
A half of bad football is why the Browns (5-4) are two games behind Pittsburgh (7-2) in the division. It`s why the Browns have lost nine straight and 15 of 16 in the rivalry. It`s why a huge day by kickoff returner Joshua Cribbs - a 100-yarder for a touchdown and a 90-yarder that set up a touchdown - went for naught.
"We could`ve made a statement today," said McGinest, who missed Roethlisberger on a third-down scramble that led to the winning touchdown. "A lot of guys are disgusted.
"We`re in this thing, we know we`re in it, we`re a better team than we showed today."
Cleveland`s most meaningful game since 2002 started with so much promise. That just makes the loss even more painful.
"If we would`ve played in the second half the way we played in the first half, we win the game," said coach Romeo Crennel, who`s 0-6 vs. Pittsburgh.
Derek Anderson took advantage of great field position to throw three touchdown passes and build a 21-6 lead in the first half. Then he started misfiring, and the offense came to a screeching halt. The Browns didn`t manage a first down for the first 29 minutes of the second half and totaled 48 yards over the final 30 minutes.
"We weren`t as efficient overall as we have been in the past," Crennel said of the offense that had averaged 31 points in Anderson`s previous seven starts.
When it mattered most, down three with 1:04 left, Anderson (16-for-35 for 123 yards and an 83.4 rating) could only move the team to the 35-yard line. Phil Dawson drilled the kick, but the wind stopped the 52-yarder 3 yards short.
"I hit it about as good as I could hit it," Dawson said. "But it doesn`t make me feel any better."
The final drive was sabotaged before it started. Reserve tight end Darnell Dinkins got called for holding on the punt return, costing the Browns almost 30 yards and forcing them to start at the 33-yard line.
"There is no doubt in my mind I destroyed him off the football," Dinkins said in protest of the call. "It cost us the game."
The call wasn`t the only thing worthy of blame.
Two minutes earlier, the Browns used two timeouts to challenge one play - a 2-yard Heath Miller touchdown catch. The call stood, the Browns used their last timeout on Pittsburgh`s final drive and every second proved precious.
Crennel, who`s 2-for-21 all time on challenges, said the players on the extra-point team called timeout to give him an opportunity to see if the catch was good. Crennel`s replay assistant in the press box suggested he use another timeout after getting multiple looks at the replay.
"Whether I was convinced or not, some people were convinced and so I challenged it," Crennel said. "We used two timeouts and it hurt us down the road.
"I`m not exactly sure what happened," he said when pressed. "A timeout was called on the field. I followed it up with a challenge. What else can I tell you? Put it on me."
The final collapse belonged to the defense. The much maligned unit was standing tall on third down and in the red zone throughout the first half, holding the Steelers to three field goals. Then Roethlisberger made every big play, including a pair of backbreaking scrambles that McGinest could not contain.
Roethlisberger went 23-for-34 for 278 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a 99.9 rating. He ran five times for 49 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown, and improved to 7-0 vs. the Browns.
On the career-high 30-yarder, McGinest was responsible for the middle of the field, got blocked to the left and Roethlisberger was gone.
On third-and-9 from the 12 with about four minutes left, McGinest was supposed to shadow Roethlisberger. He missed the tackle, Roethlisberger picked up 10 yards and hit Miller two plays later for a 31-28 lead.
"It`s a big missed tackle. I don`t make any excuses," McGinest, 35, said. "Those types of plays I usually make in my sleep. I make that tackle, they have to kick a field goal and it`s a whole different ballgame."
One person who avoided the blame was Cribbs. He finished with 204 kickoff return yards on four returns. The 100-yard touchdown was a thing of beauty. After he muffed the bouncer, he retreated to the goal line, picked up the ball, made three guys miss inside the 5-yard line and was able to stay inbounds despite a shove from linebacker Andre Frazier.
"I took one to the house last year in the fourth quarter and we still lost," Cribbs said.
The Browns have spent the last two months trying to prove they`re a different team than the one that went 4-12 last year and lost 34-7 to Pittsburgh in Week 1. They made strides Sunday.
"That doesn`t mean anything," said Anderson, who wasn`t sacked. "We still lost."
"We surprised a lot of people, especially Pittsburgh," linebacker Antwan Peek said. "We`re definitely not the team they played the first game. But we have to finish, no matter what."
With a two-game lead plus the tiebreaker, Pittsburgh appears on its way to the AFC North title. That leaves the Browns battling Jacksonville, Tennessee and Buffalo, among others, for a wild-card spot.
"This game`s not going to deter us from what our goal is and what we want to do as a team," McGinest said. "It`s a tough loss. It`s a game that we felt we should`ve won.
"We`ll use this game, especially myself, as fuel in the fire. We`ll probably see them again. I hope we see them again."
Browns-Steelers III would have to come in the playoffs.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or email@example.com.