EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.: The Browns had the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants on the ropes until they experienced four minutes of football hell.
The meltdown occurred late in the first half and served as the turning point of the Browns’ 41-27 loss Sunday.
With an 11-game losing streak dating to last season, the Browns (0-5) have tied a franchise record. They also lost 11 in a row during a span covering parts of the 1974 and ’75 seasons.
“It’s a real disgusting taste in your mouth and as a team we’re hungry,” free safety Usama Young said. “We’re starving for a win.”
The Browns flirted with satisfying their appetite, but they never committed.
They built a 14-0 lead early in the first quarter with rookie running back Trent Richardson’s 15-yard rushing touchdown and rookie wide receiver Josh Gordon’s 62-yard touchdown catch, prompting fans at MetLife Stadium to boo the Giants. Even after the Giants countered with the first of wide receiver Victor Cruz’s three touchdown catches and a field goal, the Browns had a 17-10 lead and were driving late in the first half.
Then it all unraveled.
On third-and-1 at the Giants’ 25-yard line, rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden dropped back to pass and looked for wide receiver Jordan Norwood in the flat. Norwood was only open for a split-second. Weeden then rolled to his right and threw high and behind Gordon as he cut toward the middle of the field. The ball sailed into the hands of free safety Stevie Brown, who returned the interception 46 yards to the Browns’ 40. Two plays later, running back Ahmad Bradshaw barrelled ahead for a 4-yard touchdown — part of his career-high 200 rushing yards — to help tie the score 17-17 with 2:52 left in the second quarter.
“It was stupid,” said Weeden, who completed 22-of-35 passes for 291 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. “I should’ve airmailed it and let Phil [Dawson] kick a field goal. That was obviously one throw I want back. That was a frustrating one for me.”
The aggravation continued for the Browns. After Bradshaw’s touchdown, Josh Cribbs fumbled when Will Hill stripped him of the ball from behind. Brown recovered and returned the fumble 9 yards to the Browns’ 29.
“I’ve got to take care of the football,” Cribbs said. “There’s no excuse for that.”
Five plays later, Cruz lined up in the slot, baited cornerback Dimitri Patterson on a fake to the inside, ran a corner route and was wide open in the end zone when he caught a 7-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Eli Manning with 1:10 left in the first half. Adding injury to insult, Browns starting middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson was knocked out of the game with a concussion during the Giants’ five-play, 29-yard scoring march.
“Everything seemed to spiral out of control,” strong safety T.J. Ward said.
Two illegal blocking penalties caused the Browns to stall during the next series, and they punted. With four seconds left, cornerback Buster Skrine was called for a 24-yard, pass-interference penalty, allowing the Giants to move into field-goal range. Lawrence Tynes made a 40-yard attempt as time expired to give the Giants a 27-17 halftime lead.
The Giants scored 17 points in the final 2 minutes, 52 seconds of the first half. The Browns’ momentum vanished, and their colossal collapse was in full swing.
“That was a three-phaser right there, and you don’t want that,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “One involved an interception, one involved them sticking the ball in the end zone and one involved Josh [Cribbs] fumbling the football. You just can’t do that.”
Cornerback Dimitri Patterson was carted to the locker room with an injured left ankle early in the third quarter. With Patterson sidelined, rookie Trevin Wade became the nickel corner and was burned by Cruz as he caught a 28-yard touchdown pass from Manning with 5:06 left in the third quarter. Cribbs returned the ensuing kick off 74 yards, but the Browns failed to gain a first down after starting the drive at the Giants’ 30. They settled for Dawson’s 41-yard field goal with 3:27 left in the third quarter, trimming the Giants’ lead to 34-20.
They later had a golden opportunity to cut their deficit to one touchdown. But on third-and-goal at the Giants’ 10, linebacker Chase Blackburn, a former University of Akron standout, intercepted Weeden’s pass to tight end Benjamin Watson in the end zone. Rookie running back David Wilson then broke loose for a 40-yard rushing touchdown with 5:41 remaining, extending the Giants’ lead to 41-20. Weeden’s 20-yard touchdown pass to Gordon with 3:56 left was too late to matter.
“We had a strong start,” said Richardson, who had 17 carries for 81 yards and a touchdown to go along with five catches for 47 yards. “The one thing we’ve got to do is keep our foot on the pedal. We’ve got to make sure we finish the game. We’ve got to play 60 minutes.”
And avoid those four minutes of misery.
“The last three or four minutes in the first half was probably the worst football we’ve played all year,” Weeden said. “One thing compounded after another, and you can’t do that.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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