GLENDALE, Ariz. - The Browns picked a bad time to play their worst game since the opener.
With a chance to control their playoff destiny and put pressure on Pittsburgh in the AFC North, the Browns had a disaster in the desert. They started slowly (14-0 deficit after 10 minutes), committed turnovers (four) and lost their composure (10 penalties for 77 yards; three personal fouls).
The Browns rallied and Kellen Winslow almost pulled off a miracle, but they were just bad enough to lose 27-21 to the Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Browns fell to 7-5 and into a tie with Tennessee for the second wild-card spot in the AFC. They are a game behind Jacksonville (8-4) and a game ahead of Buffalo (6-6).
"It`s frustrating the way the season was going," cornerback Leigh Bodden said. "We expect to win every game.
"We controlled our own destiny. We didn`t play like that today."
As poorly as the Browns played, Winslow caught Derek Anderson`s 37-yard Hail Mary between two defenders in the end zone on the final play. But side judge Joe Larrew ruled it incomplete, saying Winslow landed out of bounds and wasn`t forced out.
A replay review upheld the call. Whether a receiver is forced out isn`t reviewable.
"It should`ve never come down to that to begin with," Anderson said.
The quarterback was at the heart of the miserable start that doomed the Browns.
He began the game with an intentional grounding on a pass out of bounds that wasn`t close to a receiver. Then he threw late toward Tim Carter near the sideline and was intercepted by Roderick Hood, who returned it 71 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead after the Browns` first possession.
On the next possession, Anderson fumbled a snap and Antonio Smith recovered. The Browns had Arizona stopped when Daven Holly broke up a third-and-4 pass at the Cleveland 37-yard line, but Bodden kicked the ball and was penalized 5 yards for delay of game.
"It was something that didn`t need to happen," coach Romeo Crennel said of the first of many stupid penalties.
The Cardinals took advantage, turning it into a 5-yard touchdown from Kurt Warner to tight end Leonard Pope in the back of the end zone with Leon Williams in coverage.
"Obviously I gave them 14 points," said Anderson, who went 21-for-41 for 304 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 71.6 rating. "I`ve got to play better early on and get those guys going. That`s my job."
The Browns have struggled on the road most of the year, especially early in games. They were able to rally from a 14-0 hole in St. Louis, but couldn`t climb out of the hole Sunday and fell to 2-4 on the road.
"Each week we work on coming out fast. Each week we start out slow," said receiver Braylon Edwards, who had seven catches for 149 yards and a touchdown to put him over 1,000 yards for the year. "We need to address that starting (today)."
The Browns travel to the New York Jets next week and head to Cincinnati in Week 16, so they will have to solve the road woes if they want to want to cap this unexpected season with a trip to the playoffs.
"We can`t take no break," linebacker Antwan Peek said. "We`re in too crucial a situation to let anything go by."
That`s what makes the loss to the Cardinals (6-6 and in the NFC playoff chase) so maddening. The Browns insisted they were the better team, and outgained the Cardinals 379 to 302 yards. But Cleveland wasn`t good enough to overcome an avalanche of mistakes that made the three hours in the desert seem like 40 days.
"We didn`t do a good enough job coaching," Crennel said. "We didn`t do a good enough job playing."
"We only have ourselves to blame," linebacker Willie McGinest said. "But nobody`s gonna get down on each other. We`re not gonna let this get us down or stop us."
The Browns have been a resilient team all season and showed their fight by rallying Sunday. They cut the lead to 14-10 at halftime on a 6-yard Jamal Lewis catch and made it 21-18 on a 67-yard completion to Edwards that withstood a replay challenge. Edwards fell to the ground, got up and ran the final 31 yards, and the referee ruled that he wasn`t touched down.
But the Browns defense couldn`t hold the Cardinals in the fourth quarter, allowing two short field goals, the final one with 1:48 left after Arizona chewed up 4:29, most of it with Edgerrin James running.
The Browns had no timeouts when they took over with 1:43 left, and they started at the 18-yard line after Simon Fraser was called for head-butting a Cardinal on the kickoff return. It was a penalty that encapsulated the game.
"They always see the second head butt," Crennel said. "That`s not disciplined enough, that`s not smart football."
That was the story of the day for the Browns.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or email@example.com.