Browns vs. Bengals: 6 Things We Learned from Cleveland's 23-20 Loss

Samantha Bunten@@samanthabuntenAnalyst INovember 27, 2011

Browns vs. Bengals: 6 Things We Learned from Cleveland's 23-20 Loss

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    RB Peyton Hillis finally returned to the field on Sunday, but his efforts weren't enough to keep the Browns from losing a 23-20 heartbreaker in Cincinnati to the division rival Bengals.

    It was an especially tough loss to swallow for Cleveland, not just because it came at the hands of a divisional opponent, but because the Browns came oh so close to pulling off an upset this afternoon.

    Within two minutes of it, as a matter of fact. When Cincinnati kicked its game-winning field goal with just 38 seconds to go in the game, they also grabbed the first lead they'd had all day. 

    The game had been the Browns' to lose up until then, and lose it they unfortunately did. 

    The Ohio rivals were deadlocked at 20 all for most of the third quarter, and the Browns had a chance to pull ahead on their second-to-last possession of the game. But just like the mistake that cost the Browns a win in St. Louis two weeks ago, the Browns botched the snap on a gimme field goal and the kick sailed wide of the uprights, and along with it most of the team's hopes for pulling off a big upset this week,

    As heartbreaking a loss as it was, though, the Browns have a lot of reasons to hold their heads up high after this one. We saw plenty of mistakes, but we also saw some very encouraging efforts by the Browns. 

    Despite the loss, it may have been the best game the Browns have played thus far this season. 

    Following are six things we learned in a game that was at once soul crushing and at the same time uplifting for the Browns' faithful. 

1. He's Baaaack....

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    The most conspicuous missing person in recent Cleveland sports history, Peyton Hillis, finally reappeared on the field this afternoon after a lengthy and much speculated upon absence due to a persistent hamstring injury. 

    Hillis didn't blow anybody away today, but Browns fans finally got another glimpse at the kind of hard-nosed, bulldozing running game they haven't seen since the very beginning of the season when Hillis was first lost to illness and injury. 

    Hillis finished the day with 65 yards on 19 carries. He didn't get to the end zone, but carried the ball more often than many expected in a game where it was assumed he would be limited and eased back in.

    The Browns took a more subtle approach to that strategy, choosing to put both Chris Ogbonnaya and Hillis on the field at the same time on some plays, sometimes allowing Hillis to act as the fullback, rather than using Hillis only in a situational role. 

    He wound up getting the bulk of the carries after all, as Ogbonnaya rushed just three times for 16 yards.

    Still absent from the running game was Montario Hardesty, who was slated to play but aggravated a calf injury during warm-ups. 

    Overall, it wasn't really what you would call a banner day for the Cleveland running game, since the two backs logged just 81 yards between them and failed to reach the end zone, but it was very encouraging to see Hillis back out there and in fighting shape, and the strategy behind the running plays used today was infinitely better than what we've seen in the recent past. 

2. Hell Freezes over in the 1st Quarter...

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    It took 12 weeks, but the Browns finally found the end zone in the first quarter. 

    After orchestrating what was one of the best drives we've seen all season at any point in any game on their first possession in this one, Colt McCoy hit Jordan Norwood in the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown just four minutes into the game. 

    At long last, the Browns were able to come right out of the gate and execute. Their first drive was a thing of beauty, consisting of nine plays good for an 82-yard march down the field to the end zone in just four minutes and five seconds. 

    Even though it ultimately wasn't enough to net a win later, it was probably the single most encouraging thing I've seen from the Browns all season. 

    Among the highlights were multiple first-down conversions by Hillis, and two huge catches by Norwood, one of which punctuated the near-perfect drive. 

    The Browns would go on to falter later in the day, but it was a huge stride for them to finally kick the mean case of first quarter-itis they've been battling all season long. 

3. ...but the Browns Fall Apart in the 4th

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    As nice as it was to see the Browns get things going in the first quarter, today they ended up fizzling out in the fourth. 

    They had four possessions in the final quarter of the game, which resulted in two punts, a missed field goal and a turnover on downs. 

    It wasn't that the Browns played badly or made a lot of mistakes in the fourth as much as that they seemed tired and worn down. 

    They also fell victim to Cincinnati's signature move, which is eking out points in the final two minutes of a half. Going into today, the Bengals had scored a whopping 36 points in the final two minutes of games, and they did it again today, kicking what would wind up being the game-winning field goal with less than a minute left on the clock. 

    The Browns did have one final possession after the field goal that put the Bengals up by three, but they ran out of downs and time before they could get into field-goal range. 

    Far more devastating than that, though, was the second potential game-winning or tying field goal in the last three weeks that was the product of a bad snap. 

    Mistakes happen, but this one was nearly inexcusable for a Pro Bowl long snapper like Ryan Pontbriand. Still, before laying too much blame on Pontbriand, we have to remember that he didn't lose this one on his own. The Browns had four opportunities to get a score in the fourth quarter, and they failed on all of them. 

    In a game that was very, very close in score, yardage and time of possession going into the fourth, it really looked like the Browns were just worn down from what was probably the most intense three quarters of football they've been involved in all season. 

4. The Kids Are Alright

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    As much as I didn't enjoy watching Phil Taylor accidentally roll up Dimitri Patterson or Greg Little drop a number of catchable balls, overall, it was a very good day for the Browns' youngsters.

    Greg Little certainly dropped too many passes, but he also got his first touchdown of the season. Five receptions in 13 targets is obviously a horrendous statistic for Little, but that can't completely erase the good he did today. 

    Mistakes aside, one of the highlights today for the whole team (not just Little personally) was watching Little refuse to let go of the football he caught for his first career touchdown all the way into the locker room at halftime. It's one of the most endearing things I've seen from the Browns this year, and despite the dropped passes, spoke highly for Little.

    The accuracy and precision will come with time and experience, but Little already has something that can't be taught that was evident in his hanging on to that ball for dear life on the sideline and down the tunnel: a passion for the game that will one day separate him from those of equal talent but less heart. 

    Another rookie having an excellent day was DE Jabaal Sheard, who stripped Andy Dalton for a fumble and had an all around solid day. 

    And while he's not a rookie, youngster Jordan Norwood impressed today as well, not only scoring the Browns first first-quarter TD of the season, but catching four of five targets for a team-leading 69 receiving yards on the day. 

5. Flashy Plays by the Bengals Kill the Browns Again

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    When the Browns saw the Bengals the first time this season during Week 1, their hopes of a win were dashed by two huge plays, one by Cedric Benson and one by A.J. Green. 

    This game, unfortunately, wound up providing eerie flashbacks to the season opener, as both Green and Benson again came up with big plays that would prove crushing for the Browns. 

    Obviously, in both games, these big plays were not the only reason the Browns didn't emerge victorious. But all of them resulted in scores or other positive game-changing events for the Bengals.

    Benson had 21 carries and a touchdown on the day good for 106 yards, 33 of which came on one long run. In addition to the big play factor there, Benson's numbers also proved the Browns still need to improve dramatically in defending against the run. 

    But the real killer today turned out to be A.J. Green, whose 51-yard catch and run set up the game winning score for the Bengals, and killed the Browns' hopes for an upset. 

    If the Browns take one thing away from this one in terms of how to handle the Bengals when they see them again next season, it should probably be that they absolutely must stop Cincinnati's two star offensive players from making huge plays in critical situations.

6. The Greatest Browns Game of 2011?

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    It's tough to trot any loss out as anything other than just that. You can certainly make the argument that there's no such thing as a truly "good game" played by a team that winds up losing. 

    But I'm going to go ahead and call this "The Best Game the Browns Have Played in 2011" anyway. 

    That might sound a little over-optimistic and batty, but that's nothing I haven't been called before, and in a losing season, I think sometimes the team's performance has to ultimately be judged by progress and competitiveness rather than by the final score. 

    This afternoon, the Browns held the lead over a very talented (and likely playoff bound) opponent for three quarters. They played the Bengals tough the whole way, and in the end lost by just three. The near miss of a victory made the game that much more heartbreaking, but it also made it infinitely more encouraging. 

    Today we saw rookies and youngsters step up. We saw our first first-quarter touchdown of the year. We saw the return of Peyton Hillis. We saw some improved play-calling on the offensive side of the ball. We saw the Browns penalized just three times all day for only 15 yards. 

    And most of all, we saw the Browns scare the living daylights out of a divisional opponent that came into this game expecting to roll to a victory. And win or lose, we saw the best four quarters of football we've seen out of the Browns in 2011.

    Obviously, none of us are satisfied with this or any loss the team has suffered this season, but in a year where it's been tough to find the encouragement to keep believing, we finally got a game out of the Browns that indicated they may yet have a bright future ahead of them.

    This team still has a long way to go, but I believe they made a huge stride in the right direction today.