CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Browns entered the game against the Las Vegas Raiders with the odds stacked against them. Down 22 players to COVID-19, not to mention head coach Kevin Stefanski and two other coaches, after a week of scattered practices and viral game planning—a loss seemed like the most probable outcome.
But through four quarters, the Browns played with heart. They tried. They came up three yards and three points short.
With Nick Mullens, the Browns third-string quarterback, starting under center, left guard Joel Bitonio sliding over to fill in at left tackle after just one practice with Jedrick Wills on the COVID-19 list, and Kareem Hunt, Austin Hooper, and Jarvis Landry among others also on the list, the offense had a slow start.
Scoreless through the third quarter, the Browns couldn't get the run game going in the first half and tough drops from Donovan Peoples-Jones and numerous routes stopping short of the sticks led to the Browns punting the ball in their first four drives.
The Raiders drove down the field and scored with ease on their first possession, and after the defense stopped them on the next two drives, Las Vegas took a double-digit lead with a field goal.
That was something Browns kicker Chase McLaughlin couldn't do Monday night.
On a 46-yard field goal attempt, McLaughlin missed, sending the Browns into the half scoreless.
"You have to make those kicks. The expectation is to make those types of kicks in that game, and he should have made it,” acting head coach Mike Priefer said after the game.
Those three points would come back to haunt the Browns in the end.
Coming out of the half, the Browns went 3-and-out to start, but a spark that came from a split sack by Sheldon Day and Jeremiah-Owusu-Koramoah, who forced a fumble recovered by Porter Gustin, reignited FirstEnergy Stadium.
What was then a lifeless crowd, awakened and roared. The energy returned and the fans began to see a chance at a victory once again. The Browns channeled that energy, pushing down the field and scoring on a 4-yard touchdown rush from Nick Chubb.
After the Raiders answered with a field goal, the Browns, down a score, kept fighting.
On an eight-minute drive, the Browns made their way 80 yards down the field in 14 plays, draining the clock down to just under four minutes. It was enough time for the Raiders to answer back, but Greedy Williams came up big for the Browns with an interception on the Raiders' 38-yard line—holding Cleveland's 1-point lead.
The stars seemed aligned for the Browns who, with a win, would have moved to the top of the AFC North and had a clear path for a playoff birth.
But fate, and a punt on 4th-and-3 after the two-minute warning, ended those dreams quickly. Three more yards for a first down and the Browns could have continued their drive and perhaps held on to the ball long enough to end the game. But in their own territory, they punted.
Maybe if Stefanski was in he'd have gone for it on fourth down. Maybe not. Maybe he would have called different plays and let Mullens use his arm to get the first down. But the three yards, added with the three points that McLaughlin left off the board earlier, showed their importance on the final drive of the game.
The Raiders drove down the field and even had a holding call against them that moved them back 10 yards, but with missed tackles from Jovante Moffatt, Owusu-Koarmoah, and Denzel Ward on the last drive, the Raiders found themselves in position to make a 48-yard field goal attempt.
And unlike Cleveland's kicker, Daniel Carlson nailed it, giving the Raiders the 16-14 win as time ran out.
Now at the bottom of the AFC North and 12th in conference standings, the Browns' playoff path is murky. They all but have to win out. With a tough Christmas Day game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on a short week, getting a victory will be tough. The rest of the season will come down to scoreboard watching.
"It really hurts. It was so cool and the stadium was rocking. I really believed in the fourth quarter that this night was destined for Cleveland, but sometimes it doesn't work out like that,” Mullens said after the game.
“The fans were freaking awesome here. We had the cool lights and all. You're like, ‘We're going to finish this out. This is our thing. This is what we're going to do.’ I really believed that, but unfortunately it just didn't happen."
The Browns left the field and the feeling in the locker room was shared pain. Pain over the loss. Pain over what could have been with just one more play—or a few more points.
"That locker room right now is hurting. That's the most I've seen it in that kind of pain. You're upset when you lose. Obviously, you're joyous when you win. When you lose that type of game, that one's tough. They're pretty down right now," Priefer said. "We'll have our jobs cut out for us this week in terms of coaches and getting them back up again and getting their spirits back up because they're young people."
Monday's loss was deflating because it was all right there for the taking. Even after a COVID-19 outbreak. Even with 22 players out. Even with the head coach at home. It was right there. But despite all of the heart the guys played with through adversity, Cleveland came up just short. And that's what stings the most.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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