CLEVELAND (AP) – The Browns needed all kinds of help to keep their scant postseason hopes alive until the season’s final week.
They got it. But they failed themselves.
The playoffs are gone. The coach might be next.
Cleveland’s disheartening season dropped another level Sunday with a 31-15 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, who won their 11th straight game, locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs and star quarterback Lamar Jackson and his teammates guaranteed they’ll play at home until the Super Bowl.
For the Browns (6-9) there are no rewards, only despair.
“Very disappointing,” coach Freddie Kitchens said. “I am proud of the way the guys kept fighting and kept battling to the very end, so I am proud of them for that. I just wish we could have made a few more plays to get the job done.”
The Browns tacked another year onto the NFL’s longest postseason drought, which stretches back to 2002. They’re now faced with another possible coaching change after Kitchens armed his critics with more reasons to believe he doesn’t deserve a second season with Cleveland.
Kitchens’ clock management, or rather his lack of clock management late in the first half backfired. Instead of possibly running out the time and having a lead at halftime, the Browns gave up two touchdowns in the final 1:18 as the Ravens took a 14-6 lead into the break and never looked back.
With the Browns leading 6-0 and facing a third-and-1 at their 28, Kitchens called a trick play that blew up. Running back Kareem Hunt took a pitch from Baker Mayfield and was thrown for an 8-yard loss on a failed halfback option.
The Ravens were out of timeouts at that point, and a safer strategy – like maybe handing the ball to NFL rushing leader Nick Chubb – could have resulted in Cleveland burning more time or even moving into field-goal range.
Instead, the Ravens got the ball and scored in 32 seconds with Jackson throwing a 39-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mark Andrews.
The Browns got the ball back, and Kitchens again got risky. Mayfield threw three straight incompletions before punting and Jackson drove the Ravens 75 yards in 46 seconds, hooking up again with Andrews on a 14-yard TD.
“We just kind of blinked and they had 14 points,” said Browns safety Damarious Randall.
Kitchens defended his decisions, saying he was “definitely” going to go for it on fourth down despite the Browns being inside their 30 if Hunt had only thrown an incompletion on third down.
Another shoulda, coulda, woulda moment for the Browns in a season of them.
Coming in, the Browns needed to win, for Pittsburgh and Tennessee to lose and Indianapolis to win in order to stay in the playoff chase for the season finale at Cincinnati.
Three of those things happened. The Browns, whose 40-25 win at Baltimore in Week 4 may have been the season’s high point, didn’t do their part.
“It comes back on us not doing our job,” said Mayfield, who finished 20 off 33 for 192 yards, two touchdown passes and an interception. “You do not ever want to have to rely on somebody else to get into the playoffs. We just have to do our job first and foremost, and we did not do that today.”
Now, the focus switches to Kitchens and his future. He’s not solely at fault for what happened – or didn’t happen – this season in Cleveland,. Someone is going to take the fall for a team that didn’t play up to its talent.
Mayfield gave a diplomatic answer when asked if the criticism toward his coach is unfair.
“Anytime you have a head coach and you have a losing record, that is the first person everyone points to, but it goes to many more things than just Freddie,” he said. “We can all be better in this process. I think that is what it comes down to is there is not one single thing to blame. Just overall, we all have to bring it more and more every day to meet the expectations we set for ourselves.”
Kitchens’ fate rests with owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam and general manager John Dorsey, who may have already seen enough to make up their minds.
Browns fans made their feelings known while flooding toward the exits of FirstEnergy Stadium in the closing minutes. As empty orange seats began to outnumber the filled ones, a disgusted fan sitting in front of the press box screamed “Fire Freddie!”
It’s that time of year again in Cleveland.