CLEVELAND — They say that hindsight is 20/20 and, of course, looking back on the the Browns final drive of the Christmas Day game against the Green Bay Packers, anyone could come up with different ways the team could have performed better and pulled off the win.
Cleveland was down just two points and pushing into field goal territory, with their eyes first set on the end zone before a field goal—either way in a good position. But after moving down the field and getting two first downs thanks to a Nick Chubb rush and reception, Baker Mayfield threw two incomplete passes before throwing his fourth interception of the game and giving the Packers the ball to close out the last few seconds of the game.
Unfortunately, what's done is done, and the Browns couldn't get the win, even though it was right there. Now that head coach Kevin Stefanski has had a few days to go back, watch the tape, and find ways to improve, he said what happened in that fateful and frustrating final drive is something that has made them go back and question their choices.
Stefanski said that he and his team, including offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, felt good about the play-calling on the final drive and saw their chance to make explosive plays with a first down that never came due to Mayfield's pick.
"We felt like we were in control there, but, ultimately, when you don't come through, you second-guess everything—you second guess the first play of the game, the second play of the game or whatever it is," Stefanski said. "When it doesn't work, we're definitely second-guessing ourselves.”
After moving the ball to the 50-yard-line with less than a minute left to play, Cleveland had all three timeouts remaining but didn't use any as they looked to control the clock and expected a much different outcome on their last three plays.
“We were definitely ready to use the timeouts when necessary or when we were going to stop that clock. We were anticipating getting a new set of downs there," Stefanski said. "Then, certainly, you would be ready to stop the clock in that situation."
Mayfield's fourth interception sealed the fate of the Browns on Saturday, but it was also a play that could have had a different outcome with a seemingly appropriate defensive pass interference call from the officials that never came—something Stefanski acknowledges but declines to use as an excuse.
"I think we certainly feel like there was potentially a flag on that play, but we didn't get it, so we're not ever going to hope for a flag to help us in those situations. It just didn't happen,” Stefanski said.
Stefanski also discussed the decision to pass the ball so many times on the final drive, saying it came down to the game plan—which was to score a touchdown first before settling for a field goal. Plan B, if they couldn't score a touchdown, was to minimize the distance of a field goal attempt.
With Chase McLaughlin, who has had struggles of his own through the second half of the season, on the COVID-19 list, the Browns relied on their practice squad kicker Chis Naggar. His first game action was less than ideal, missing the extra point attempt on the Browns' opening drive touchdown. After that miss, the Browns opted to go for two on their next touchdown but failed.
Naggar went on to make a 37-yard field goal and an extra point, but on the final drive, Stefanski and his team, including special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, didn't find it fair to the kicker to put him in such a tough and crucial spot with a long game-winning field goal opportunity.
“I wouldn't characterize it as ‘lack of confidence.’ I would just tell you, I think to be fair to Chris in that type of game, didn't want to attempt a long field goal with the game in the balance," Stefanski said. "We wanted to go score a touchdown – something that we had done throughout that game moving the ball. Certainly, if it came down to a field goal, he's our kicker, and we have confidence in him, but our mentality wasn't just to get the ball to the 35 or the 40 and attempt a long field goal.”
Managing the clock wasn't just about getting in better position to score a touchdown or lessening the distance for a field goal attempt—it was also about making sure either of those could-have-been outcomes didn't happen too quickly, which would have given Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers the ball back with a potential to drive down and win the game—something he's done plenty of times before.
"Certainly, a great quarterback like Aaron Rodgers, we don't want to give him any time. We felt like we were in control of the clock with our timeouts,” Stefanski said.
Stefanski said the conversations about play calling on a final drive and the use of the timeouts down the stretch begin prior to their last possession. On Saturday, those conversations were had, and a plan was drawn up, but the turnover cut short what we may have seen from Stefanski and his staff.
“I think it's prior to that drive, understanding that you have all three and you had the two-minute [warning] there so we had one more play before the two-minute," Stefanski said. "Felt confident that we could run our core stuff. Ultimately, we're trying to go score a touchdown and/or kick a short field goal, and we just didn't come through.”
With two games on the schedule and a path to the playoffs still in their sights, Stefanski and the Browns are back to work as they prepare to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in a Monday Night Football must-win match-up—using the Packers loss as more learning lessons for the team as they move forward this week.
"We're going to watch the tape with the players tomorrow, pull it apart and see ways that we can get better. That has to be our focus," Stefanski said. "Our whole focus is on Pittsburgh, and we have now a long week going into this one, get some guys back hopefully off of the COVID list and then put a plan together to go find a way to get a win in Pittsburgh.”
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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