By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
CLEVELAND: The Browns blew a fourth-quarter lead for the third week in a row, falling 38-31 to the Chicago Bears on a blustery, bitter-cold Sunday afternoon in the home finale at FirstEnergy Stadium.
But give the Browns credit for their creativity. They always find a new way to collapse, and they actually managed to surprise themselves with the most recent method. They became the first team since the Buffalo Bills in 2007 to score two defensive touchdowns and lose, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“I just never guessed we’d lose after having the hot start that we did,” free safety Tashaun Gipson said. “If you would have told me that in the middle of the second quarter, I would have never believed you.”
Added inside linebacker and defensive captain D’Qwell Jackson: “The weirdest things have happened, and the longer I play this game, they continue to happen. And tonight was one of those games where you score two defensive touchdowns early, you tell yourself, ‘If we keep playing our good defense, if we don’t give up the big play, we should be OK.’ ”
Instead, the Browns (4-10) reached double-digit losses for the sixth consecutive season. They have lost eight of the past nine games and five in a row en route to being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. The Bears (8-6) moved into sole possession of first place in the NFC North.
Moments before defensive end Billy Winn knocked the ball away from Bears tight end Martellus Bennett and strong safety T.J. Ward recovered the fumble and returned it 51 yards for a touchdown with 3:40 left in the third quarter, cornerback Joe Haden was knocked out of the game with a hip pointer when offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod’s left knee collided with Haden’s left hip. Ward’s touchdown gave the Browns a 24-17 lead entering the final quarter, though Haden’s injury foreshadowed another disaster.
Playing for the first time since he suffered a high left ankle sprain Nov. 10, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler shook off the rust he showed earlier in the game and orchestrated a six-play, 95-yard drive aided by rookie cornerback Leon McFadden’s 30-yard pass-interference penalty and cornerback Buster Skrine’s 5-yard illegal contact penalty. With 10:59 left in the fourth quarter, Cutler capped the drive with a 45-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who caught a jump ball in the front corner of the west end zone between the coverage of Gipson and cornerback Julian Posey, who was filling in for Haden.
As the ball sailed through the air, Gipson was positioned in front of Jeffery and appeared to be on the brink of tallying his third interception of the game — he had already returned one pick 44 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. However, with winds estimated at 12 mph at the Bears’ backs, the ball carried farther than Gipson thought it would, and he missed his chance to grab it.
“It looked like an under-thrown ball,” Gipson said. “I had a good break on it, and for some strange reason, the ball literally seemed to sail right over my hand. It wasn’t a mistimed jump or anything. But I’ve got to come down with that play. No excuses.”
The defense then unraveled, allowing Cutler’s 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Earl Bennett and running back Michael Bush’s 40-yard touchdown rumble during the Bears’ next two possessions. The Bears scored three touchdowns in a span of 8 minutes, 42 seconds.
“When you get a habit of winning, you find a way to win and vice versa,” Jackson said. “We’ve been finding a way of letting leads slip away. That’s been our Achilles’ heel. I think it’s all in habit.
“Coach [Rob Chudzinski] had a message this week of us fighting, focusing and finishing. We always fight. We focus — and a lot of times our focus isn’t always there for four quarters. And then we got to finish. That was clear today.”
The offense certainly didn’t do its part. Quarterback Jason Campbell completed 23-of-39 passes (58.9 percent) for 273 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions, the second of which cornerback Zack Bowman returned 43 yards for a touchdown to give the Bears a 17-10 lead with 13:48 left in the third quarter after the score was tied at halftime.
“I’m very disappointed in myself to say the least,” said Campbell, who finished with a passer rating of 67.6. “It definitely wasn’t the performance I thought I could come out and have.”
The Browns rebounded from Bowman’s touchdown and capped a 10-play, 85-yard drive with running back Edwin Baker’s 2-yard rushing touchdown that tied the score with 8:24 left in the third quarter. But during their next possession, they squandered a chance to go ahead by two scores early in the fourth quarter when a holding penalty called on right guard Shawn Lauvao negated running back Chris Ogbonnaya’s 8-yard run to the Bears’ 19. The 10-yard penalty pushed the Browns back to the Bears’ 37, where they were stopped and forced to punt with 13:42 left.
The Bears responded with their scoring outburst, and Campbell and Co. didn’t do anything of consequence until it was too late. Campbell connected with wide receiver Josh Gordon for a 43-yard touchdown pass with 59 seconds left. Gordon had a quiet day, finishing with only three catches for 67 yards, though he said his performance had nothing to do with a minor car accident in which he was involved Saturday. Actually, Gordon said the Bears were playing basic, cover-two defense, but the offense just missed chances to capitalize.
After Gordon’s touchdown, the Browns were penalized for illegal formation during the ensuing onside kick, which the Bears recovered anyway to ensure they would prevail.
“It kind of defined our season — some good things, some bad things,” Campbell said. “It’s hard to go home and sit at night and sleep when you know all these games you’re right there in them, you’re just not able to finish them.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.