Final recap -- Buccaneers 17, Browns 14 (click here for the box score)
The Browns flirted with success in their season opener today against the host Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but it turned out to be just a tease. Three turnovers sucked the life out of the Browns, leading Cleveland to a record of 1-11 in regular-season debuts since its expansion era began in 1999.
Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman's 33-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Micheal Spurlock with 6:45 left in the fourth quarter accounted for the final difference on the scoreboard. However, the Browns' previous miscues were the main culprits in their sixth consecutive season-opening loss.
"What the game comes down to is us not making mistakes to beat ourselves during the course of the game," Browns coach Eric Mangini said after exiting the Browns' locker room for a postgame news conference in the bowels of Raymond James Stadium. "There were too many of them. We turned the ball over. We get big point swings. We put the ball on the ground too much. And I'm disappointed for our guys because they work hard, they play hard and we've got to get to the point now when we're playing to win the game and not make the mistakes that are gonna cost us the game."
Late in the second quarter, the Browns (0-1) appeared to be on the brink of taking a convincing lead into halftime. But Buccaneers veteran cornerback Ronde Barber intercepted a pass thrown by Browns quarterback Jake Delhomme. Barber returned the interception 64 yards to set up Freeman's 3-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Williams with 18 seconds left in the second quarter, helping Tampa Bay (1-0) trim Cleveland's lead to 14-10 at halftime.
Delhomme's pass was intended for tight end Benjamin Watson, but it never made it there. As Delhomme threw, he leaned to his right to avoid pressure, and Barber took advantage by stepping in front of Watson.
"I was trying to get the ball to [Watson]," said Delhomme, who completed 20-of-37 passes for 227 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions. "Ronde, that's why he's still playing. He's a savvy vet. He was covering [another receiver] ... and he came off and went and got the ball. He made a good play, but still I should have been smarter with the ball.
"Sometimes you get burned. Usually, I feel more times than not you can kind of make it happen. But it was a play that was a good call, and we almost had it."
The Browns started the third quarter with a promising drive, but running back Peyton Hillis fumbled, allowing Buccaneers linebacker Quincy Black to recover on Tampa Bay's 14-yard line. The Browns' offense was inept the rest of the way.
"We definitely shot ourselves in the foot a few times," Hillis said. "But our defense put us back into good situations, put us back in the game and we didn't respond well. We had mistake after mistake."
The Browns had a chance to make a comeback after Cleveland rookie safety T.J. Ward, who had a team-high 10 tackles, forced Buccaneers running back Earnest Graham to fumble, allowing Browns linebacker Eric Barton's recovery with 2:17 left in the fourth quarter. But the Browns' ensuing drive stalled deep in their territory.
Cleveland, though, received one last shot to rally when it got the ball back with 34 seconds left in the game. But with no timeouts left, the Browns couldn't do much. Delhomme's 9-yard pass to wide receiver Chansi Stuckey was the final play of the game. Stuckey tried to get out of bounds near the Browns' 42-yard line to stop the clock, but he fell short of the sideline and the game ended.
The Browns outgained the Buccaneers in total yards 340-288, had one fewer penalty and two more first downs. They also had three sacks (1 1/2 courtesy of linebacker Marcus Benard, one by linebacker Jason Trusnik and 1/2 via linebacker Scott Fujita) and allowed none. But their three turnovers -- Delhomme's two interceptions and Hillis' lost fumble -- doomed them.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers had two turnovers. Browns defensive back Mike Adams had an interception, and Barton had a fumble recovery after Ward jarred the ball loose. In the end, though, the Browns' turnovers and their inability to get anything going on offense with poor field position in the second half were the difference.
"It's extremely disappointing," said Browns cornerback Eric Wright, who also played safety today, helping limit Buccaneers tight end Kellen Winslow to four catches for 32 yards. "I felt like we definitely had a better team, and you can't win with self-inflicted wounds. We want to give them all the credit in the world. They fought hard and stuck around and fought through adversity, and I feel like we really shot ourselves in the foot."
End 1Q: Browns 7, Buccaneers 3 -- 1. The Browns struck first when quarterback Jake Delhomme connected with wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi for a 41-yard touchdown pass with 2:48 left in the first quarter. Cornerback E.J. Biggers and safety Tanard Jackson appeared to be confused in coverage on the play, allowing Massaquoi to make an uncontested catch. Kicker Phil Dawson's extra-point attempt was good, and the Browns took a 7-0 lead. 2. Buccaneers kicker Connor Barth made a 49-yard field goal with 50 seconds left in the first quarter to trim Tampa Bay's deficit to 7-3.
End 2Q: Browns 14, Buccaneers 10 -- 1. Browns running back Peyton Hillis rushed for a 10-yard touchdown off left tackle. Browns left guard Eric Steinbach pulled on the play and served as Hillis' lead blocker as he ran into the end zone. Dawson's successful PAT gave the Browns a 14-3 lead with 5:35 left in the second quarter. 2. Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Williams caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Josh Freeman in the back of the end zone after the ball deflected off Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown. The PAT was good, and Tampa Bay cut Cleveland's lead to 14-10 with 18 seconds left before halftime. Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber intercepted a pass thrown by Delhomme and returned it 65 yards to Cleveland's 3-yard line to set up Williams' touchdown.
End 3Q: Browns 14, Buccaneers 10 -- No scoring.
End 4Q: Buccaneers 17, Browns 14 -- 1. Buccaneers wide receiver Micheal Spurlock caught a 33-yard touchdown pass from Freeman. Browns cornerback Joe Haden was beat on the play. The Buccaneers made the PAT, giving them a 17-14 lead with 6:45 left in the fourth quarter.
Top storylines: 1. Can the Browns keep their momentum alive from last season? Winning four games in a row gave them confidence and helped coach Eric Mangini keep his job, but whether it can carryover to a new season remains to be seen. 2. Several players, including quarterback Jake Delhomme, will make their regular-season debuts with the Browns. Cleveland will also play its first regular-season game with team president Mike Holmgren officially in charge of the franchise. 3. The Browns face one of their former star players, tight end Kellen Winslow, who's now the Buccaneers' top offensive weapon. 4. Browns defensive lineman Shaun Rogers returns to action after suffering a season-ending ankle injury last year and missing all of training camp and the preseason. 5. Don't underestimate the heat in Tampa today. The Browns will need to adapt to the Buccaneers' environment if they want to succeed.
Inactive players: Browns – Colt McCoy (third QB), WR Carlton Mitchell, S Nick Sorensen, LB D'Qwell Jackson, OL Shawn Lauvao, OL Steve Vallos, TE Alex Smith and LB David Bowens. (With Bowens inactive today, his streak of 100 consecutive regular-season appearances dating back to 2003 has been snapped.) Buccaneers -- Rudy Carpenter (third QB), RB LeGarrette Blount, RB Kregg Lumpkin, OL Ted Larsen, DL Michael Bennett, WR Maurice Stovall, WR Preston Parker and DL Erik Lorig.
Lineup changes: Browns -- none. Buccaneers -- CB E.J. Biggers will start in place of CB Aqib Talib, who is serving a one-game suspension today for violating the league's personal conduct policy.