It's starting to wear thin, isn't it, this incessant pattern of the Cleveland Browns getting perilously close to winning a game only to lose it in the end? They did it again in Week 11 against the Dallas Cowboys, putting up 13 points to Dallas' zero in the first half but ultimately falling, 23-20, in overtime.
At first it seemed novel, and only half-serious, to suggest that the Browns could not figure out how to win games—but now, it's a sad sort of deja vu, replaying itself every weekend. The Browns have only two wins when they easily could be above .500, and it provides little relief to know that this team is far better than its record indicates.
So far this season, we've seen the Browns lose because of poor performances from quarterback Brandon Weeden, bad offensive play-calling from head coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress, failures to make crucial stops and game-clinching plays, and, in this most recent loss, because of their secondary.
Of Cleveland's 12 penalties (for 129 total yards), 10 of them resulted in Cowboys first downs, most of those flags coming for members of their secondary. Also hurting matters was their second-half inability to contain Dallas receiver Dez Bryant, who had just three catches for 25 yards in the first half and nine for 120 and a touchdown in the second.
This loss was made even more upsetting considering how well the rest of the defense performed. It sacked Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo seven times and forced a Romo fumble and held their run game to just 63 total yards. It's a common theme—the Browns dominate games, week after week, in every area but one, and that one area dooms their chances for victory.
With a better record, it wouldn't be hard to spot the Pro Bowl-caliber talent on Cleveland's roster; there would be no more calls for Weeden to be replaced by Colt McCoy; Shurmur's and Childress' jobs would be in less jeopardy; and, in a weak AFC and tumultuous North division, the Browns could be legitimate playoff contenders.
That's not to be, alas. However, there is an impact the Browns can make in the playoff picture: as a spoiler.
To do that, however, they need to start winning games, beginning this Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. That aforementioned tumult in the division? Most of that has been kicked up by the Steelers over the past two weeks—in Week 10, starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was felled by a shoulder and rib injury that has him shelved indefinitely, while his backup, Byron Leftwich, suffered a similar fate in the following week.
Their offensive woes have been further compounded by a concussion suffered by running back Isaac Redman in Week 11, an ankle sprain that's had receiver Antonio Brown sidelined the past two weeks, and cracked ribs for fellow receiver Jerricho Cotchery that had the Steelers bring back Plaxico Burress on Tuesday. As such, it will be 37-year-old Charlie Batch under center in Cleveland on Sunday, throwing, in part, to the 35-year-old Burress against a Browns defense that, barring the same penalty problems that plagued them last week, could take advantage of this less-than-ideal Steelers scenario.
So if we can (fairly) safely rule out the Browns defense from being a potential reason for a loss this week, then who can we pre-emptively blame for why they could lose? Weeden could have a struggling day against the ever-improving Pittsburgh secondary; they had myriad opportunities to pick off Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in their 13-10 loss to the AFC North leaders last week, and if they don't drop those passes this week, it could be a bad day for the rookie.
But let's not get too negative. The Browns have a lot they are playing for this week—bragging rights, for one—but the lure of potentially ruining Pittsburgh's playoff hopes should also be a major motivating factor. At 6-4, the Steelers have but a one-game lead in the wild-card race and are two games back from the Ravens.
A loss to Cleveland (combined with a win by the Cincinnati Bengals, who host the Oakland Raiders) makes it that much harder for them to maintain their tenuous lead—and they still have another meeting with the Browns (as well as one apiece with the Bengals and Ravens) after Sunday. Even splitting the series with the Steelers could knock off one of their biggest rivals—as well as provide the momentum the Browns need to build a little run for themselves as the season nears its close.
In many ways, the Browns have showed progress from where they stood last season, even if they currently have two fewer wins now than how things ended up in 2011. It's a very complete roster, even if has yet to translate with any consistency on the field, with legitimate star-caliber players at pretty much every position group (yes, even quarterback).
However, all that progress looks like mere "progress," a simulacrum of the real thing, without the more tangible measuring stick of wins. They've been practically handed wins by their opponents this year and the Browns have done nothing more than the equivalent of slapping that hand away. If they can embrace it this week by taking advantage of the Steelers' weaknesses and play a complete four quarters of football, it should result in a win—and that is, without a doubt, progress.