BEREA - A Monday off for the players is usually reserved as a reward for a win, but coach Romeo Crennel called an audible.
"I wanted to rest them both physically and mentally," he said Monday.
While Browns Town was still reeling a day after a 31-28 loss to the Steelers, Crennel was looking at the bigger picture. The Browns (5-4) are in the thick of the AFC wild-card race and can`t afford to let the heartbreaking loss drag them down, especially not with a trip to AFC North rival Baltimore (4-5) coming Sunday. The Browns are early three-point favorites.
"We know that we still have work to do and we`re going to go to work," Crennel said. "We`re putting this game behind us. We need all our focus and energy going on the next game."
The season sweep by the Steelers (7-2) leaves the Browns two games and the tiebreaker behind in the division race. A wild-card berth is more realistic, with Jacksonville and Tennessee occupying the two available spots at 6-3. The Browns and Buffalo are 5-4 and scheduled to play Dec. 16 in Cleveland.
"We still have ourselves in a position that we can get something done with the rest of this season if we play," Crennel said. "If we don`t play, if we go in the tubes or down the tank, then it will be back to the same old thing. We`re not going to let that happen."
The road would`ve been much smoother if the Browns would`ve hung on at Heinz Field. They would be tied for the lead in the division and wild-card race and riding their first four-game winning streak since 1994.
But they let a 21-6 first-half lead vanish.
"You don`t let crucial games like this slip away like that," linebacker Antwan Peek said Sunday.
The defense allowed 22 second-half points and a series of long third-down conversions in the fourth quarter. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger scrambled for a 30-yard touchdown on third-and-10, hit tight end Heath Miller for 20 yards on third-and-18 and ran 10 yards to the 2-yard line on third-and-9.
The offense was worse. After three touchdown passes in the first half, helped by good field position, quarterback Derek Anderson was 6-for-19 for 43 yards. He wasn`t pressured, but had trouble adjusting to a top-ranked Pittsburgh defense that took away the deep ball and dropped the linebackers into coverage.
"It takes away some of your chunk plays that you`re able to make. Then you have to take the check-down," Crennel said. "They were breaking pretty quick on the check-down so it wasn`t giving us as much."
Crennel said the solution is to keep throwing underneath and hope for a run after the catch, or hold the ball longer and look deeper. That opens up a greater possibility of sacks.
"He has a decision to make when he`s back there," Crennel said of Anderson. "He`s been making good decisions all year for us."
Anderson wasn`t the only problem with the offense. Jamal Lewis fumbled to lead to a Steelers touchdown and rushed 16 times for 35 yards (2.2-yard average). Braylon Edwards caught only one pass all day, and Kellen Winslow had just one in the second half. The Browns finished with 48 yards in the second half and just two first downs, none for the first 29 minutes.
Edwards was one of several players who stood up in the locker room after the loss to take blame. Veteran linebacker Willie McGinest was the harshest self-critic for allowing Roethlisberger to scramble.
"I told them I`ll never play that way again," he said. "I`m strong, put it on me. I`ll bite the bullet."
"That`s what a team does," Crennel said. "I tell them all the time that we`re a team. It`s never one person`s fault, it`s everybody - coaches, players and everybody else. We win as a team and we lose as a team."
Growing pains are expected from a young team that hasn`t had success. The Browns were 10-22 in Crennel`s first two years and entered the season expected to be among the league`s worst.
Crennel was asked what he wants his team to take from the near miss.
"That we could have won the game," he said. "If we play better, we win the game."
Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward was impressed.
"They`re good," he told SI.com`s Peter King. "And they`re going to be good for a while."
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or email@example.com.