If all it takes for a team to win in this league is for it to first endure the most disruptive week in recent memory, then Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage should feel free to re-stir the pot again this next week. Showing only a residue of the effects from the soap opera that enveloped them all week, the Browns, blew a 10-point halftime lead, got two field goals late and then held on by the length of one bobbled football for a 23-17 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday.
After a first half that was mostly a ping-pong match of momentum changes, the Browns found themselves leading 17-7 after two quarters and seemingly in control. But lumbering out of the locker room after apparently taking a 15-minute nap, the Browns mostly watched Jacksonville take over the second half with series of long drives that ultimately promised more than they delivered.
A blocked field by defensive lineman Shaun Rogers, who had his best game as a member of the Cleveland Browns, ended one drive and the Jaguars were forced to settle for a field goal on another when they really needed a touchdown instead.
Meanwhile, the Browns got two critical Phil Dawson field goals after Jacksonville had tied the game at 17 and came up with one final defensive stop, thanks to a ball Jacksonville receiver Matt Jones couldn't quite handle in the end zone with one second remaining, before the win was secured.
It was a somewhat unlikely but satisfying end for Cleveland in a game that started out as if it was going to be a shootout.
After an early exchange of punts, the Browns came out on their second series of the day and acted as if neither the Redskins game nor everything that followed had happened. On four straight plays the Browns gained 10+ yards and moved quickly from their own 20-yard line and into the Jaguars' red zone. A pass from quarterback Derek Anderson to tight end Steve Heiden then took the ball down to the Jaguars' 5-yard line for another first down. Two plays later Anderson found Donte Stallworth wide open in the middle of the end zone.
It was the Stallworth's first touchdown of the season and, remarkably, the Browns' first first-quarter touchdown this season. This sort of harmonic convergence, together with the Phil Dawson extra point, gave the Browns the early lead at 7-0. It was a crisp 9-play 80-yard drive that was as much a message from the Browns to themselves as it was to the Jaguars that the self-inflicted turmoil of the week was indeed behind them.
That sense of purpose seemed to be picked up by the defense and all was going well on the ensuing Jacksonville drive until D'Qwell Jackson, coming up the middle on a blitz on third-and-10, couldn't contain Jaguars' quarterback David Garrard. Some nifty running coupled with missed tackles by linebacker Willie McGinest and safety Sean Jones allowed Garrard to gallop for 24 yards, down to the Cleveland 39.
The Garrard run set the tone for the rest of the drive as the Jaguars then converted three more third downs before Garrard found receiver Reggie Williams for a 5-yard touchdown. Remarkably, it was the first touchdown by a Jaguars wide receiver this season, a bit of harmonic convergence for Jacksonville as well and the game was quickly knotted at 7-7.
But the Jacksonville momentum was short-lived as well, thanks to a questionable call by head coach Romeo Crennel that for once went right. With the ball on their own 49-yard line, the Browns decided to gamble. Anderson faked the sneak to fullback Charles Ali and rolled right, finding a wide open Heiden who then rumbled for 51 yards, down to the Jacksonville 2-yard line. From there, Jamal Lewis took it in and, with the Dawson extra point, the Browns held serve and regained the lead 14-7.
The Jaguars, meanwhile, couldn't muster a similar magic of their own on their next drive when the Browns stopped running back Maurice Jones-Drew on fourth and one from the Cleveland 37-yard line. The Browns' immediately turned decent field position to their advantage when Anderson found receiver Braylon Edwards on a 43-yard pass down the left side line. But the drive fizzled on an Edwards drop on second down and an odd, quick underneath pass on third down to Stallworth. Dawson then hit a 32-yard field goal to extend the Cleveland lead to 17-7 with just over two minutes left in the half.
The Browns had a chance to add to that lead, taking over at their own 34-yard line with just over a minute left in the half and two time outs. A 17-yard screen pass to Jason Wright took the ball to the Jackson 49-yard line. But the drive died right there. Even still, it was the only real opportunity that the Browns had missed in that first half en route to putting up 17 points, two more than their season average, and gaining 212 yards, just 24 less than they had in the entire Redskins' game a week ago.
But if Jacksonville was down, it was hardly out. Getting the ball to start the second half, Jacksonville moved quickly down the field. Just as suddenly, though, they were fourth and one from the Cleveland 10-yard line. Instead of taking the chip shot field goal, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio out-Crenneled Crennel. Garrard gave the ball to Jones who was bottled up, but only temporarily. He strung the run out left and stepped out at the 8-yard line for the first down. On the next play, Garrard found Matt Jones slanting in the end zone to help bring the Jaguars back to within three at 17-14.
The Browns, on the other hand, seemed to be in full yawn mode. After stalling out in their next drive at the Jacksonville 40-yard line, Dave Zastudil's punt traveled all of 15 yards. Taking over at their 24-yard line, the Jaguars put together a long, lumbering drive that consisted of many plays and many minutes. But when it ended seemingly two hours later, all the Jaguars had to show for it was the blocked field goal by Rogers that gave the Browns back the ball at the Cleveland 41-yard line.
But even that couldn't jolt the offense awake as it then proceeded to put together its worst series of the game, a series that in retrospect not only could have been worse but could have cost them the game. An Anderson interception on third down was nullified when Jacksonville was offside and an Anderson fumble on the next play was recovered by offensive lineman Joe Thomas.
With Jacksonville taking over at its 26-yard line after the Zastudil punt and just over 11 minutes left, the Jaguars seemed to have the Browns where they wanted. On third and 8, Jacksonville converted another third down, their 400th or so of the day, on a Garrard to Jones 20-yard pass. Rogers then was flagged for a roughing penalty on Garrard, the Browns' first penalty of the day. That put the ball at the Browns 39-yard line. But Jacksonville couldn't convert its 401st third down and was forced to attempt a 53-yard field goal, which Josh Scobee converted to tie the game at 17.
As it turned out, it's where the Browns wanted to be all along. On some inspired running early in their next drive by Jamal Lewis and an inspired run off a 53-yard catch by Syndric Steptoe that took the ball to the Jaguars' 1-yard line, the Browns seemed poised to seal a victory. But they couldn't punch it in, even after a Jaguars penalty took the ball to the half-yard line, and were forced to settle for a 19-yard Dawson field goal and a very shaky 20-17 lead with just under 5 minutes remaining.
But gifts come at the most unexpected time and on the kickoff, returner Brian Witherspoon had the ball dislodged by his own teammate and Josh Cribbs ended up with it at the bottom of the scrum. With just over 4 minutes remaining, the Browns had the ball at the Jacksonville 26-yard line.
But in a season where nothing has come easy, the Browns went three and out. Dawson then hit a 43-yard field goal to extend the Browns lead to 23-17 but it likewise was not the stick-a-fork-in-them end to the drive that they needed.
The defense, though, tried to then do the honors themselves, forcing Jacksonville into its own quick three-and-out. But when the offense got the ball back, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski stayed conservative, running on a 3rd-and-five, and forcing the Browns to turn the ball right back over, giving Jacksonville one final crack at the ball with two minutes remaining.
The problem, though, with the Jacksonville offense is that it's not particularly geared to this kind situation. It prefers the more laconic pace of a mid-game drivel approaching each drive like a pharmacist filling a prescription. A 35-yard pass to Jones did bring the ball to the Cleveland 26-yard line with 17 seconds remaining. But on a play that seemed to be run in slow motion, Jones couldn't quite find the handle on the ball in the end zone, bobbling it three times before watching it fall harmlessly away with one second remaining. Garrard's final desperation pass was long, securing the win for the Browns.
The outcome certainly brought a measure of calm to the internal storm of the previous week and probably did little to stop the Browns-are-better-off-without-Winslow talk among the fans as Heiden again had a solid day with three catches for 73 yards, including that 51-yard pass from Anderson.
Anderson, meanwhile, wasn't great but he was good enough, which is really all he needs to be from week-to-week. He was 14-27 for 246 yards and one touchdown, the 5-yard grab by Stallworth. Lewis had 81 well earned yards on 20 carries and the Browns' other touchdown.
The defense, led by Rogers, continued its stellar play. Though Jacksonville had the ball nearly 11 minutes more, converted 11 of 20 third downs and outgained the Browns 380-327 yards, the Browns defense repeatedly came up with the key stops they needed at the end of the game. Garrard was 25-42 for 282 yards and two touchdowns and also scrambled for 59 yards. He was the leading rusher as the defensive line kept running backs Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor under wraps all day, which was the difference maker.
The Browns now find themselves at 3-4 and a game closer to the Pittsburgh Steelers after they lost at home Sunday to the New York Giants. The Browns aren't necessarily at a crossroads, but nonetheless find themselves facing a crossroads game against Baltimore next Sunday who, with a victory over Oakland, also is ahead of the Browns in the standings.
Given how this season has gone, everything sets up well for a let down next week. But on the other hand, in a season where almost nothing has been predictable, there's every chance the Browns can break form and reassert themselves in the AFC North. Just to be safe, a little turmoil this week would help.