It was a sad ending to the 2011 season for the Cleveland Browns, who hung tough against the Pittsburgh Steelers in their final game of the season but couldn't pull off an upset, losing 13-9 on a snowy, cold day in Cleveland.
The Browns thus finish the season at 4-12, failing to exceed or even match their 5-11 mark from 2010, while their rivals, the Steelers, will move on to postseason play.
There's nothing Cleveland fans loathe more than losing to the hated Steelers, except maybe the fact that the team once again failed to make the playoffs, or even reach the .500 mark.
Our expectations were somewhat tempered this season (as they have been for most seasons in the recent past), as we knew the team was too young and inexperienced to have a shot to contend for a division title or a wild-card spot.
Still, at the start of the year, most of us did expect something better than a 4-12 season fraught with disappointment and controversy beyond anything we expected, even from the Browns, who seem to have a knack for that sort of thing.
But because we've all suffered enough this season, and because the Browns, despite failing to pull off a win today, did play a pretty solid game, I think it best to end the season on a positive note, and focus mostly on what we learned in this game that relates to what went right, rather than what went wrong.
As frustrating as covering the Browns was at times this season, it was still mostly a pleasure for me, as was interacting with the fantastic commenters we have in the Browns community here on Bleacher Report. We may not have one of the NFL's best teams, but we sure have one of the NFL's best fan bases.
Cheers, Dawg Pound faithful! We'll get 'em next year!
A friend and fellow member of the Cleveland sports media is always telling me that it pays to be a pessimist if you're a Cleveland fan; you're never disappointed because you always expect the worst, and if by chance something actually goes right, you get to be pleasantly surprised.
It's never any fun to admit, but he's 100 percent right.
Most of us among the Browns faithful, myself included, didn't go into this game expecting a win. There was too much on the line for the Steelers, who were fighting for the possibility of a division title, and too little evidence to suggest the Browns were capable of pulling off an upset. The Steelers didn't get their title of course, but they did get their win. Sadly, most of us weren't expecting anything different from that.
And yet, optimistic fools that we are, many of us indulged ourselves in a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, the Browns could end the season by pulling off a real doozy of an upset when we saw them head into the locker room at the half with a 6-3 lead.
Yes, of course we all know the Browns need more like a 30-point lead rather than a three-point one for any of us to really think they can hang onto it, but today is the start of a new year. The Browns played well in the first half, and well, sometimes we all just believe because as Cleveland sports fans, that's all you can do.
Normally, it's all the more frustrating when the Browns trick us into thinking they might hang on for a win, only to ultimately crumble and break our hearts than it is when they simply stink from the first to the final minute of the game.
Sure, it looked close until the bitter end, but close is for horseshoes and hand grenades, not football, and certainly not Cleveland football.
But at least today, as much as we were disappointed by losing as always, we were able to take heart in the fact that we scared the daylights out of the Steelers, and that our defense and other individuals on the team played a pretty darn good game. A loss is a loss at the end of the day, but some losses are worse than others, and thankfully, today wasn't one that was near the bottom of the heap.
While the Browns 2011 offense has left much to be desired, the defense has been a pleasant surprise, not only improving at the rate it should have been, but far exceeding most of our expectations.
Yes, they still have trouble stopping the run. Yes, they still make the kind of mistakes that come from youth and inexperience despite the fact that even this season's rookies now have a full year under their belts.
But that doesn't mean the defense didn't play well (and far better than expected) on the whole. In a season of disappointment, and at times embarrassment, for Browns fans, the defense's performance on the whole was something to be proud of.
Today, the Browns defense couldn't keep the score low enough to allow the offense to eke out a win (nor, obviously, did they get the shut out that would have gotten a whole bunch of people a free Kia in the contest going on at a Medina car dealership), but they held the Steelers to just one touchdown and gave up just 13 total points.
On a team with a halfway decent offense, holding an opponent to less than 14 points will typically get you a win. Thus the Cleveland D did its job today and did it very well. Those looking to point a finger of blame for this loss certainly can't point it at anyone on the Browns' defense.
Among the highlights were fumble recoveries by Joe Haden and rookie Eric Hagg, and very solid play by the usual suspects on the front seven, D'Qwell Jackson, Jabaal Sheard, and Ahtyba Rubin.
There is a long, long list of NFL players who you could accuse of not playing with enough heart, dedication and loyalty to their team.
One person who will never, ever be on that list?
Cribbs is, was, and will be for the rest of his time in Cleveland–he's the heart and soul of this football team. He is their vocal leader, their biggest cheerleader, their hardest worker and today, he was one of their most productive players on the field as well.
It was a fantastic way to end the season for Cribbs and his fans, who were all frustrated by the Browns' seemingly never-ending inability to figure out just exactly how best to use No. 16's odd but plentiful assortment of talents.
Listening to Cribbs talk, watching the way he treats his fans and his teammates, and simply seeing him on the sideline or on the field makes it exceptionally obvious that this is a guy who gives 1,000 percent, 1,000 percent of the time. He takes the blame for his mistakes as well as those of the team as a whole, he plays hard on every down he's on the field for, and his community outreach in Cleveland is unparalleled by any other local athlete.
This is a guy who could do virtually nothing on the field all season, and it would still be impossible not to love him. And today, his performance against the Steelers only added to the appeal he holds aside from in-game performance.
He didn't find the end zone, unfortunately, but he caught seven of 10 targets for a whopping 91 receiving yards. On a day where QB Seneca Wallace looked mostly awful, Cribbs managed to make the passing game look solid at times in spite of that.
And despite Wallace's struggles, it's also worth noting that TE Evan Moore also had a couple of nice catches for 39 yards, and Carlton Mitchell had a nice 19 yard reception as well.
Let's just come right out and say it: Browns fans are completely freaking nuts.
You'd have to be to sit out in the kind of weather they endure for the bulk of the season while watching a team with a .25 winning percentage.
But this is the way of the Cleveland fan. In a way, we give up before we even start, expecting the worst because we're trained to, but that doesn't mean we aren't behind our Browns, living and dying with every win, every loss, even every play, right along with them.
Today's game was freezing cold, snowy and generally a miserable day of typical Cleveland winter. It was also a game that the Browns had very little chance to win. Yet the stadium was still full of Browns-loving lunatics willing to risk frostbite and heartbreak for one last chance to cheer on their beloved Browns as the 2011 season comes to a close.
To see so many people still show up for a team that breaks their heart each week, each season and each decade is both ridiculous and immensely admirable. Browns fans may be fools, but they're also the best damn fans any team could hope for.
Yes, it's true Browns fans; you're all completely crazy to keep at this year in and year out. And I am tremendously proud to be one of you.