There was no shortage of story lines coming into Sunday’s game against the New York Jets. Rob and Rex Ryan grabbed headlines with their good-natured jabs at one another. Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini faced the team that he helped build but which ultimately fired him.
After convincing wins over the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints and a drubbing of the Patriots, the Browns looked to continue their winning ways against top-tier teams.
Enter the 6-2 Jets—physical defense, strong running game, young quarterback. Sound familiar?
It took nearly five full quarters of action to decide the contest. With just 16 seconds left in overtime, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez completed a pass to wide receiver Santonio Holmes. Holmes did the rest, racing past cornerback Eric Wright and rookie safety T.J. Ward.
This toe-to-toe slug fest was the result of the two teams being a mirror image of each other. The reason the Jets came out on top is because New York is simply further along in the process.
The Jets offensive line is anchored by Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold and fellow Pro Bowl left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. The Browns, meanwhile, have second-year, first-round draft pick Alex Mack at center and three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas.
Mack, highly regarded as a smart, physical center, has helped block for a resurgent running game featuring Peyton Hillis. Joe Thomas has given rookie quarterback Colt McCoy time to stand in the pocket and look downfield.
The New York Jets have two of the best cornerbacks in the league with Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. The Browns seem to have found the real deal in cornerback Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward.
Haden, the seventh overall pick out of Florida, has been earning more playing time this season. Matched up one-on-one with Jets Pro Bowl receiver Braylon Edwards, Haden more than held his own. Braylon was limited to four receptions for 59 yards. Haden also recorded his second career interception while guarding Edwards near the end of overtime.
Although Ward missed in a big way on the final pass to Santonio Holmes, he has had a fine rookie season and has brought a physical presence to the defense. Ward, a big hitter, has been great in run support and has recorded a team-high 75 tackles.
The difference between the two teams became apparent in the passing game. With 10:14 left in overtime, Colt McCoy hit wide receiver Chansi Stuckey for 14 yards to bring the Browns into field goal range. However, in an attempt to gain extra yardage, the ball was jarred loose and recovered by the Jets.
On the ensuing drive, Jets receiver Jerricho Cotchery made an amazing catch for a first down. Hobbling out of his break with an apparent groin injury, he somehow made a diving catch for a first down while fighting off tight coverage.
The Jets did not score on that drive, but the resulting field position led to the final sequence of events. The Browns did get the ball back, but it was from their own 3-yard line.
Unable to move out of their own end, the Jets were able to start from the Browns 37. Even without the final touchdown, at the very least, New York was already in field goal range for a last second attempt.
The Cleveland Browns are being built in the image of the New York Jets. If everything remains constant, there is every reason to believe they will be among the elite teams in the NFL in one to two years.
The difference in Sunday’s game came down to playmakers at the wide receiver position. The Jets had them, and the Browns did not.