By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
FOXBOROUGH, Mass.: The only thing more shocking than the Browns nearly pulling off an upset on the road over the New England Patriots was the dramatic, absurd and controversial fashion in which coach Rob Chudzinski’s men blew a 12-point lead with a little more than a minute remaining.
“I’m sick about the outcome of the game,” Chudzinski said after his team fell 27-26 on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
The Browns (4-9) suffered their fourth loss in a row and their seventh in the past eight games. The Patriots (10-3), who extended their winning streak to three games, scored two touchdowns in the final 1:01, recovered an onside kick in between, benefited from some questionable penalties and survived a missed 58-yard field goal from Billy Cundiff with time expired.
“When he kicked it, it looked like it was going right down the middle,” said Browns quarterback Jason Campbell, who completed 29-of-44 passes for 391 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, posting a passer rating of 116.8. “Then all of a sudden, just felt a gust that came and pushed it back. Just fell a yard and a half short. It was like, ‘Man, when are we going to get our break?’ ”
Campbell, re-energized upon his return from a concussion he suffered Nov. 24, found tight end Jordan Cameron in the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown off a play-action fake that gave the Browns a 26-14 lead with 2:43 remaining. Wide receiver Josh Gordon, who had seven catches for 151 yards and a touchdown and broke the franchise’s single-season record for receiving yards, caught a crucial 19-yard pass on third-and-17 at the Patriots’ 40-yard line to keep the eight-play, 80-yard scoring drive alive.
But when the Browns had the Patriots on the ropes, familiar scenarios unfolded. The Browns fizzled in crunch time, and as cornerback Joe Haden said, “At the end, Tom Brady became Tom Brady.”
Brady, the Patriots’ superstar quarterback, capped an 11-play, 82-yard drive with 1:01 left by throwing a 2-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver and Kent State product Julian Edelman, who beat Haden’s coverage in the back of the end zone to trim the Browns’ lead to 26-21. A replay from CBS’ telecast shows that as Edelman made the catch, rookie safety Jordan Poyer used his right shoulder to hit Edelman in his right shoulder and chest area, not his head. Still, the officials penalized Poyer for unnecessary roughness.
“I was right there,” strong safety T.J. Ward said. “Poyer hit him in his chest. There was no helmet contact, no head contact.”
With the 15-yard penalty from Poyer’s hit enforced on the ensuing onside kick, the ball was placed at the 50 instead of the Patriots’ 35. The Patriots lined up six players to the right of kicker Stephen Gostkowski and four to his left. Gostkowski kicked the ball to the middle — where no Browns players were positioned — ran alongside it as it bounced and slid near the Browns’ 40.
Browns running back Fozzy Whittaker said he thought the ball hit Gostkowski as he ran alongside it, but it didn’t.
“I wasn’t going after the ball,” Whittaker said. “I was trying to hit the kicker that was standing by it because I thought it hit him.”
By rule, the ball needed to travel 10 yards for the Patriots to recover it, unless the Browns touched it. That’s exactly what happened as the ball skipped and hit the falling Whittaker in the gut just before it traveled the mandatory 10 yards, allowing Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington to recover it at the Browns’ 40 with 1 minute left. It was the first onside kick recovered by the Patriots since Jan. 1, 1995, and the first one in their history that they converted into a game-winning score on the ensuing possession.
Two plays later on first-and-10 at the Browns’ 30, rookie cornerback Leon McFadden was called for a controversial pass-interference penalty after Brady’s deep pass went through the hands of wide receiver Josh Boyce in the back corner of the end zone. McFadden and Boyce made slight contact with each other with their hands. As a result of the 29-yard penalty, the Patriots got the ball at the Browns’ 1. The Patriots scored the game-winning touchdown and took a 27-26 lead a play later when wide receiver Danny Amendola beat cornerback Buster Skrine on an out route and caught a 1-yard pass from Brady in the front of the end zone with 31 seconds remaining.
Chudzinski, McFadden and several other Browns players disagreed with the call.
“I did not [think it was pass interference],” Chudzinski said. “I felt like those two [McFadden and Boyce] were both jostling for the ball and obviously the penalty was called.”
Added Browns outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard: “I hate that a game has got to come down to a call like that. It’s just football. In basketball, in a situation like that, he wouldn’t get a call.”
Fox analyst Mike Pereira, the former NFL vice president of officiating, also believes McFadden should not have been penalized.
“McFadden and Boyce were hand-fighting down the field,” Pereira wrote on FoxSports.com. “There was not enough contact for defensive pass interference to be called.”
Despite the backbreaking penalty, the Browns got the ball back with 31 seconds left and drove to the Patriots’ 40 to set up a field goal with one second left. Cundiff’s calf cramped up earlier in the fourth quarter and prevented him from being used during a kickoff, though he didn’t have any hesitation about trying the 58-yard field goal. His kick was on target but fell short in the back of the end zone with no time left.
“I don’t think [my calf] had any effect on the final field goal,” Cundiff said. “I think maybe 24 degrees and 58 yards probably had more of an affect on it. But yeah, my calf cramped, and we got it settled down. I felt like it went away enough for me to go ahead and give it a good shot on the last field goal.”
In the end, like Cundiff’s kick, the Browns fell short.
“I don’t think they [the officials] took anything,” Ward said after letting out a long sigh. “We took it from ourselves. We had opportunities, and we didn’t get the job done.”
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.