Thank you, Santa.
Cleveland Browns fans received the gift of a lifetime on Christmas Eve — a win.
Somehow, the Browns managed to hold on for a 20-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Saturday, bringing tears to the eyes of the 30,000 diehards left in the seats of FirstEnergy Stadium at game’s end.
All it took for the Browns to win was two early touchdowns, a pair of Cody Parkey field goals, two quarterbacks, a Jamie Meder blocked field goal, and a near-miss by Chargers kicker Josh Lambo as time expired for the Browns to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
It’s only one win, but the Browns partied like it was 1964 on the field. Euphoria reigned as the Browns and their loyal fans celebrated as if the team had won a Super Bowl.
The win costs the team a parade and potentially a No. 1 pick. But who cares right now? At least we’re not Detroit.
On that happy note, let’s delve into what was a ridiculous game.
1. Secondary Survives: The Browns actually won a game, and the catalyst was an unlikely source — the secondary.
Yes, this is going to be an unpopular take.
But before you throw your shiny new Duke Johnson gnomes at me, hear me out on this talking point.
Here are three important facts:
- Philip Rivers completed 23-of-46 passes for 322 yards and 2 touchdowns
- Antonio Gates caught 8 of those passes for 94 yards and a touchdown
- The Browns deflected 6 passes
On paper, Rivers’ numbers look gaudy. However, first consider the completion rate. Rivers completed just 50% of his passes today, compared to his career rate of 64.6%. That’s proof of the Browns’ success.
Also consider that defensive coordinator Ray Horton inexplicably used his linebackers to cover Gates most of the game, even as Gates lit up the Browns. Remove Gates’ receptions, and Rivers completed 15 passes for 228 yards. Those still aren’t beautiful numbers to the Browns, but certainly not as bad.
Finally, look at the last stat. The Browns’ defensive backs batted away six passes in coverage. Several of those plays came in key situations.
For example, with the Chargers facing 3rd and 10 on the last drive of the game, Tramon Williams swatted away a Rivers’ pass to Tyrell Williams.
I’m typically a relatively harsh critic of Tramon Williams. But the veteran had a good game today, playing a little safety and then the top corner spot in place of Joe Haden.
And yes, I have not forgotten about Haden’s coverage lapse to start the game. More on that later. However, Haden was gritting out an injured groin today before having to depart with a neck/back injury. He’s no longer an elite corner, and should not be expected to cover one of the fastest players on the field in 1-on-1 coverage.
Besides Williams, Jamar Taylor impressed me. The former Dolphin made a leaping interception and other critical plays down the stretch. Yes, he had the pass interference in the end zone. On the other hand, Taylor looks to be a serviceable No. 2 corner or nickelback next season.
Speaking of, Ed Reynolds enjoyed a solid game despite an early mistake. The youngster was faked out on the playaction touchdown to Gates, but did pressure Rivers and make a few big tackles down the stretch. Reynolds is a player who has not given up late in the season.
Safety Tracy Howard also deserves kudos for a big hit on Gates on 2nd and 1 on the Chargers’ second to last drive of the contest. Howard’s hit caused Gates to drop the ball, leading to the Chargers to run on 3rd down, and thus kick the field goal after a Browns’ stop. If Howard eases up on Gates, the Chargers get the first down, tie or score a touchdown, and win the game.
The secondary has not done well all season, and the Browns need to invest highly in a cornerback and a ballhawk safety. But give credit for this unit for stopping Rivers just enough for the Browns to win.
2. Griffin Grounded: Robert Griffin III looked like a competent quarterback for the first time in a long while, but exited the game with a concussion.
For the first time this season, RG3 played like a starting NFL signal caller, at times at least. He showed patience in the pocket, made accurate throws, and scrambled out of trouble when necessary.
That’s not to say RG3 is suddenly the quarterback of the future. Don’t go anointing him just yet. It’s just one game.
RG3 did things he could not do last week — complete slants and other short passes across the middle to Terrelle Pryor, Gary Barnidge and others. Griffin did well on throws and plays executed easily by typical pocket passers, such as short playaction throws and medium throws to the sidelines.
Griffin also opened up space with his legs. The former rookie star completely fooled the Chargers on a few read option runs off-tackle. Griffin also scrambled for significant gains when nothing was open down field.
Still, RG3 missed his receivers on several throws, lofting it too far for Andrew Hawkins in the end zone early in the third quarter. Griffin missed Pryor on a sideline throw on another play, and threw behind Crowell on a short toss across the middle.
Griffin also absorbed five sacks by the end of the third quarter, missing chances to throw the ball away and costing the Browns key yardage.
Griffin checked out of the game with 10:30 remaining in the fourth quarter with a concussion, ending his day and perhaps the Griffin experiment in Cleveland.
We’ll see if Cody Kessler starts next week. He did throw a nice ball to Corey Coleman on 3rd and 6 for a gain of 9 yards on the team’s final drive, allowing the Browns to eat more clock time.
With Griffin out, why not see how Kessler responds in Week 17?
3. Another tough start: The Browns’ defense never seems ready to go on the first drive, and that didn’t change today. The Chargers drove 8 plays for 75 yards on the opening drive for a touchdown.
On the first play from scrimmage, Travis Benjamin lined up in the slot, across from a deep Joe Haden. Benjamin blazed by Haden, hauling in a 50-yard reception and sticking it to his former team.
Benjamin’s big catch set up the Chargers perfectly, as San Diego charged into the end zone seven plays later for a touchdown. In the process, the Chargers picked up a 4th and 1 on an easy run, bashing past the interior of the Browns’ defense.
Gates finished off the drive with a 2-yard reception, as Reynolds was drawn in by Rivers’ well-executed playaction.
To the offense’s credit, it took advantage of Chargers’ mistakes early in the game. The San Diego defense committed three penalties on the opening drive, giving the Browns extra chances. Thanks in part to two great catches by Barnidge, the Browns managed to find the end zone. Isaiah Crowell carried it into the end zone, but Barnidge laid a critical block on the run, as did fullback Dan Vitale.
At least the Browns’ offense managed to tie the game, but the fact remains that the Browns’ defense must be better prepared.
Opponent have scored first in 12 of 15 games this season. That’s unacceptable.
4. Flowing to Rivers: The Browns’ pass rush showed significant improvement today. The club’s front seven forced Philip Rivers to throw the ball early on a number of throws, a vast change from the last few weeks.
Making Rivers uncomfortable in the pocket without blitzing too many defenders is the key to limiting Rivers. The Browns succeeded in doing this, particularly in the first three quarters.
From Haden to Carl Nassib, everyone seemed to play a role in making Rivers uncomfortable. Even Reynolds blitzed on a few plays to generate pressure.
Emmanuel Ogbah continued his development, attacking Rivers with a passion. Fellow Browns’ newcomer Jamie Collins also played his best football as a Brown today, as the linebacker attacked Rivers off the edge.
The only problem? The Browns could not bring Rivers down to the ground.
The Browns did not sack Rivers once. The squad did manage 5 quarterback hits, but sacks are obviously preferable to hurries and hits.
However, the Browns did manage to throw off Rivers’ timing just enough to prevent the Chargers from tying the game in the fourth quarter. That’s important.
5. Satisfying meal: The Browns fed Isaiah Crowell, particularly in the red zone, and it paid off big-time. The Crow could have used more carries, but he did well with the ones he received.
Crowell finished the day with 16 carries for 54 yards. That figures to 3.4 yards per carry, not a particularly impressive stat. Here’s the more important figure, though — two touchdowns.
The Browns took the ball into the red zone twice on their first two drives, somehow, someway. And when the Browns needed a score, they turned to Crowell.
While the Crow has shown discomfort in the backfield at times, hesitating and dancing too much, Crowell dashed into the hole and made foes miss in the red zone. Using key blocks by his linemen and other blockers, Crowell found a way into the end zone twice, not showing a hint of indecision.
Sure, the Chargers do not have a great red zone defense. But Crowell deserves credit for finding a way to get the job done when it mattered, a feat few other Browns’ backs have accomplished.
Outside of his red zone carries, Crowell did not enjoy too much success. That can be blamed on a Browns’ passing attack that was not vertical enough to threaten the Chargers. San Diego often loaded the box with 8 players, forcing the Browns to beat them over the top.
Crowell is not Ezekiel Elliott or Melvin Gordon, to be sure. But he’s a very good back who the Browns should hang onto for a while.
6. It’s clobbering time: The Browns’ offensive linemen scuffled today, as Joey Bosa looked like The Hulk at times.
Here are some numbers for you. The Browns allowed:
- 9 sacks
- 12 quarterback hits
- 13 tackles for loss
These are ridiculous numbers.
To add onto it, before Griffin had to depart for concussion testing with 10:30 left in the fourth quarter, Griffin had 31 dropbacks. Of those, Griffin was sacked 7 times, hurried 15 times, and knocked down on 8 plays, according to CBS.
Griffin does deserve some of the blame, as his dropbacks were often not deep enough, and at least three of those sacks occurred after Griffin scrambled out of the pocket.
However, Austin Pasztor was burned on a number of passes, allowing Bosa and others to breeze by him. Pasztor and other Browns’ linemen struggled with different Chargers’ blitzes, as San Diego uses stunts to confuse the Browns.
The Browns need to protect the quarterback better, even if it necessitates keeping extra blockers in protection.
7. End of the parade, but the whining continues: The 0-16 parade will no longer occur, but the whining will persist.
Before I dive into the parade cancellation, let’s first look at how today’s win impacts the draft.
I’ve seen this take on Twitter many times: “The Browns suck, they won’t get the No. 1 pick.”
Right now, at this moment, who cares?
As I write this, the Rams lead the 49ers, 14-7, late in the third quarter. The 49ers could still come back and win. Or, the Browns could lose next week and the 49ers could beat the Seahawks.
All that matters right now is the Browns have won and avoided the embarrassment of 0-16, which might have damaged the team’s psyche even more. The 2017 NFL Draft will work itself out later.
It’s too early to project the top pick in the draft. Right now, draftniks have called Myles Garrett the top prospect. Let me ask you this: Could you pick Garrett out of a lineup? Do you know anything about him, without having to Google him?
If the answer is “No” to both questions, then you have little basis to complain.
The Browns could still draft a quarterback at No. 2, and have the draft ammunition to trade up to No. 1 if necessary.
A win today was far more important for the future of this team than one spot in next year’s draft, something most of us know little about thus far. Remember that.
And as far as the parade, please stop going after Chris McNeil on Twitter and criticizing the parade movement. Let it go.
At its core, the parade was meant to give fans a reason to come together and be happy, in spite of the team’s failures. As McNeil said, the parade was meant to bring Browns fans’ together. It wasn’t intended to make fun of the Browns or to give Cleveland a black eye. The intentions were good.
Also, the parade has led to over $5,000 of donations to the Cleveland Food Bank. If you’re mad about that, then you should be ashamed.
But whatever your views on the pick, parade, and party at FirstEnergy Stadium today, we’ll remember this day for a long while.
In the wake of the Cavaliers’ NBA title and the Indians’ fall to remember, the Cleveland Browns have taught us not to take winning for granted. In this season of giving, the Browns gave us a rare reason to rejoice in the Factory of Sadness. That’s reason enough to celebrate in my book.
Merry Christmas, Browns fans.