This season, every Cleveland Browns loss seems to be an exercise on how to give up a football game. They found a new way to lose on Sunday: In overtime, after heading into the second half with a 13-point lead.
The Browns held the Dallas Cowboys to no points and just 68 total yards in the first 30 minutes of play, only to lose in overtime, 23-20. A dominant first half by Cleveland's defense as well as quarterback Brandon Weeden's best showing so far this season turned into mistake-filled play in the second half, and the result was something the Browns have been all-too-familiar with—a road loss, their 12th in a row.
Despite Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo being sacked seven times, he put up 239 of his 313 yards after the first two quarters, as well as his lone passing touchdown. But it wasn't Romo that ultimately doomed the Browns' chances to win—it was the Browns themselves.
With 12 penalties called against them—primarily in the secondary—for 129 yards, the Browns had a major issue with discipline. Cornerback Buster Skrine was the biggest offender on the day, and the result was 10 Cowboys first downs from penalties. Without this many major errors (or arguably, without Skrine on the field, who replaced the injured Joe Haden), the day would have been dramatically different for Cleveland.
Though Weeden proved shaky at moments, with overthrows, a lost fumble and a terrible pass tossed to tight end Jordan Cameron on fourth down near the end of the fourth quarter, he also threw two touchdowns, both to tight end Ben Watson. Running back Trent Richardson had a season-high 28 carries for 95 yards, and Montario Hardesty's four carries for 23 yards also kept Browns drives going.
But the Browns gave up more penalty yardage than they had in rushing yards, leading the Cowboys with more goal-to-go situations than they could have managed on their own. That's not how to maintain a lead—the very reason the game went to overtime in the first place was because of a penalty that resulted in Dallas' tying field goal—and is yet another disturbing example of how the Browns seemingly have no ability to win football games.
Without the penalties, the Browns wouldn't have played a perfect football game, but it was one of the most promising performances the team has put up all season. Blanking the Cowboys heading into halftime, in Dallas, cannot be taken for granted and it certainly should never be squandered in the way the Browns did so on Sunday.
Mistakes like these are why the Browns have just two wins this season. Most of their losses have come in winnable games—however, their fates were sealed every time by errors both mental and physical, committed by coaches and players alike. This game, it was apparently Sheldon Brown's turn, and it's hard to not imagine which players may cost the Browns wins in coming weeks.
No other team in the NFL this season has been handed so many opportunities to earn victories and fell on their faces this many times. Discipline, focus and four full quarters of effort all seem to be lacking at critical moments for the Browns. Clearly there have been issues with coaching this season, but it goes beyond that—it's really about the quality of play on the field, and the effort players do or do not make.
Games like this one, with victory nearly handed on a platter, don't happen for teams as often as they have this season for the Browns; if their failure to seize these moments and win is some kind of sick parlor trick, it's wearing very thin.