KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Cleveland Browns entered the 2021 season with quite possibly their toughest task of the season in front of them—taking on the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
While Cleveland dominated for most of the game, a few mistakes and missteps from the Browns cost them the game against a team that was bound to capitalize on any and all blunders. Now, many fans are looking to put the blame somewhere.
It’s understandable. This is not the season for moral victories. The Browns are better than that now. But at the end of the day, the proper way to look at this loss is: the Chiefs didn’t beat the Browns -- the Browns beat themselves.
No, not like that Browns' fumble. It was a rare Nick Chubb fumble in the third quarter of the game just after a big 17-yard run the previous play.
With the Browns up 22-17, the Chiefs recovered the ball on the Browns' 47-yard line, which looked like it would be a devastating drive for Cleveland with the Chiefs taking over.
The fumble was just Chubb's fifth in his career, which made it even more surprising to see.
But that mistake perhaps could have been overcome as the defense was able to contain quarterback Patrick Mahomes on that following drive, holding the Chiefs to a field goal and maintaining a two-point lead.
It was the two mistakes to follow that really cost the Browns their promising opportunity to win their first season opener since 2004.
The Browns had answered back to the field goal that resulted from the fumble with a touchdown drive. Pushing 75 yards downfield, the Browns scored in nine plays.
After a couple of carries from Chubb, a nine-yard gain from wide receiver Jarvis Landry and a deep pass to tight end David Njoku, thanks to some beautiful passing from quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Browns looked to running back Kareem Hunt to rush it in for six.
Now, with just over 10 minutes left in the final quarter of the game and a comfortable lead back in their grasp, the Browns defense took the field.
It's no secret that the Chiefs’ offense is lethal. Mahomes is one of, if not the best, players in the league at the moment and has weapons like Tyreek Hill, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Cleveland Heights native Travis Kelce at his disposal.
Making remarkable cross-body throws and launching pinpoint deep balls in dicey situations is nothing new for Mahomes, and he showed that again Sunday. Under pressure from Jordan Elliott and against the sideline, Mahomes got off a cross-body pass deep downfield to Hill, who was being covered by new Browns safety John Johnson III.
With his body turned against Mahomes in his coverage of Hill, Johnson didn't turn quick enough to spot the ball, move in and make a play on it, allowing Hill to not only catch the 45-yard pass, but his positioning left Hill free and clear to run it into the end zone the additional 30 yards he needed.
It wasn't necessarily the fact that the Browns allowed the Chiefs to score—any time a defense can even hold the powerhouse offense to a field goal is a win on its own. It was the speed in which the Browns allowed the Chiefs to score.
The 14-second drive left 10 minutes and 10 seconds on the clock, putting the Browns in a tough spot. Only owning a two-point lead once again, the Browns would need to not only score, but manage the clock perfectly throughout the remainder of the game.
Unfortunately, it was the next mistake that made that all but impossible.
The punt (or lack thereof)
The Browns offense couldn't get it going on the drive following Hill's touchdown, going three and out after Mayfield was sacked on the first play of the drive and couldn't move the chains enough for a first down.
For the first time all game, with just under nine minutes to go, the Browns found themselves forced to punt. Jamie Gillan, affectionately known by fans as the Scottish Hammer, dropped the hammer (and the ball) on the snap, fumbling the ball and missing his clear shot to punt downfield.
Despite fumbling, it appeared Gillan had enough time to get a punt off, albeit probably a short and inaccurate one. Instead, he chose to run the ball instead.
Getting just four yards on the run, the Chiefs took the ball over at the Browns' 25-yard-line, and fans around the world watching the game knew how that was probably going to end. Their fears were well-founded.
Three plays later, the Chiefs took the lead for the first time all night with a touchdown reception from Kelce. After failing the two-point conversion attempt, the Browns were trailing 33-29.
The last seven minutes of the game saw both teams forced to punt on their following drives, but there was one small glimmer of hope left that the Browns could pull out the win.
Mayfield had the ball with just under three minutes left in the game, and he moved the Browns down the field with short passes to Hunt and wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, getting a first down. A longer 19-yard pass to Hunt put Cleveland just shy of midfield, and hope didn't seem lost. But Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen caught the leg of Mayfield on his next pass, which he was attempting to throw away after being pressured by the defense.
Sorensen disrupted Mayfield's throw, which was picked off by Chiefs cornerback Mike Hughes, ending the game.
Don't blame Baker
It's easy to see the game on the line with a chance to win combined with that interception and think that Mayfield cost the Browns the game.
The team won't finger-point after the loss. That's the old culture. But Mayfield wouldn't be on the other end of the finger even so.
Mayfield dominated early against the Chiefs on Sunday, throwing 21-for-28 for 321 yards. He put up numbers not far off from Mahomes, who threw 27-for-36 for 337 yards. Both teams had four touchdowns, all of Cleveland's coming in the form of a rushing attack after Mayfield helped push them down field.
Sure there was a chance at the end, and the interception ended that hope, but Mayfield was attempting to do the right thing and throw the ball away—it just wasn't quite fast enough to avoid the disruption from Sorensen.
To put Mayfield's performance in perspective, his was the first 300-yard performance by a Brown in a season opener since Kelly Holcomb threw for 326 yards on 18 for 30 passes against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 8, 2002. It's been awhile since a quarterback has performed so well in a season opener for Cleveland.
Keep it in context
I know I said no moral victories. But it should be acknowledged that the Browns held their own on Sunday against a team that has made back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. The Chiefs are the team to beat in this conference, and the Browns almost did, even with no Odell Beckham Jr., and Ronnie Harrison and Jedrick Wills Jr. leaving the game early.
Excuses won't work this season, and the Browns should have won, but if the first three quarters of the season opener are any indication of how the Browns will look throughout the remainder of the year, and it should, it's safe to say Cleveland is in a very good position.
They'll watch the tape, address the mistakes, possibly take a professional reaming from some position coaches and coordinators and move on to next week.
In a task slightly less daunting than taking on the Chiefs, the Browns will open their season at home Sunday against the Houston Texans.
Don't get down, Browns fans, there's still so much promise with plenty of games left to play.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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