BALTIMORE: With the lights shining bright on a national stage, the Browns fired their slingshot and just missed Goliath by a hair.
The Browns started their final drive with 1:05 left in the fourth quarter and scratched and clawed enough to put themselves in striking distance at the end of the game, but the Baltimore Ravens escaped a potential upset. The Browns lost to the AFC North rival Ravens 23-16 on a rainy Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Browns fell to 0-4 for the third time since their rebirth in 1999. They also lost their 12th divisional game in a row. Meanwhile, the Ravens (3-1) captured their 13th consecutive regular-season victory at home.
“I thought our guys battled hard,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. “I think that can be said about every game this year, and we’ve got to find a way to get a victory. We had an opportunity tonight to play a pretty darn good football team and do that, and we fell a couple plays short.”
Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden took three shots at the end zone during the final possession, though each attempt was thwarted. If one of those last-ditch efforts went the Browns’ way, they could have either tied the score with an extra-point kick or tried to pull off a stunner on the road by going for two points. Unfortunately for the Browns, the game never reached that point.
On first-and-10 from the Ravens’ 18-yard line, Weeden intended his final pass for wide receiver Greg Little. Ravens defensive end Pernell McPhee applied pressure and Weeden was hit in the ribs right after he threw. The pass sailed too long and out of the back of the end zone with no time left.
“Too much juice,” Weeden said of his last pass. “But you know what? With that being said, I’m proud as hell of this football team. Yeah, I know we lost, and it stings. It really does, but I tell you what, we fought till literally the last second.”
The previous play, Weeden’s fourth-down Hail Mary attempt to tight end Jordan Cameron was broken up in the end zone, but an unnecessary roughness penalty against the Ravens — linebacker Paul Kruger shoved offensive tackle Joe Thomas down after the play — gave the Browns another chance on which they failed to capitalize.
“I was thinking there was hope without a doubt,” said Weeden, who completed 25-of-52 passes for 320 yards with an interception for a passer rating of 59.8.
Earlier during the same drive, Weeden’s pass to wide receiver Jordan Norwood was deflected by free safety Ed Reed and hit Norwood in the shoulder before falling incomplete in the end zone.
Phil Dawson’s 52-yard field goal trimmed the Browns’ deficit to 23-16 with 4:33 left in the final quarter, but they couldn’t get over the hump in crunch time. The Browns were ultimately haunted by miscues like Little’s leaping drop in the front of the end zone the play before Dawson’s final field goal.
“If you want to be a great player, you want to be a great receiver, you want to make plays that people remember, that people name, that put you in position to come back, you make the play,” Little said.
The Ravens seized control in the third quarter by scoring on both sides of the ball.
During the opening possession of the second half, the Ravens marched 89 yards in 13 plays. On third-and-goal from the Browns’ 1, quarterback Joe Flacco rolled to his right and ran into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown with 9:53 left in the third quarter. Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin had three catches for 60 yards during the drive, and the Ravens captured a 16-7 lead.
The Browns countered with an eight-play, 53-yard drive that stalled when Weeden’s third-down pass over the middle went through the hands of Norwood. The Browns settled for Dawson’s 51-yard field goal that cut their deficit to 16-10 with 6:52 left in the third quarter.
The Ravens answered by marching 51 yards, but kicker Justin Tucker’s 47-yard field goal missed wide right. Nevertheless, any sliver of momentum the Browns might have earned vanished when the Ravens scored a defensive touchdown five plays later.
On third-and-5 from the Ravens’ 43, Weeden tried to hit rookie wide receiver Travis Benjamin on an out route. Cornerback Cary Williams gained favorable position, caught the bullet of a pass and ran 63 yards down the Browns’ sideline for a touchdown, extending the Ravens’ lead to 23-10 with 15 seconds left in the third quarter.
“I put us in a tough spot,” Weeden said. “I told a lot of the guys on offense, a lot of the guys on defense, ‘Hey, man. ‘It’s a seven point game and I spotted them seven.’”
With 12:11 left in the fourth quarter, Dawson added a 50-yard field goal and sliced the Ravens’ advantage to 23-13. Dawson tied an NFL single-game record after connecting on three field goals of 50 yards or longer. Six other kickers have accomplished the feat.
Plagued by dropped passes throughout the game, the Browns started slow for the second week in a row. Still, they only trailed 9-7 at halftime after rallying late in the second quarter.
The Browns recently emphasized the importance of Weeden connecting on his deep passes, and he finally did it late in the first half to spark an 11-play, 94-yard scoring drive. Little ran by Williams on a fade route and hauled in Weeden’s pass for a 43-yard gain. His longest completion through the first three games was 27 yards.
As the march continued, Weeden’s passes of 12 and 14 yards to Benjamin helped the Browns reach the Ravens’ 1. Then Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson took a toss, swept to the left and ran into the end zone for 1-yard touchdown with 2:32 left in the second quarter. Richardson finished with 14 carries for 47 yards (3.4 average) and four catches for 57 yards.
The defense later held at the end of the first half. After Reggie Hodges’ second consecutive punt of 32 yards, the Ravens gained possession at their own 45 with 40 seconds left. But defensive end Jabaal Sheard sacked Flacco for a 9-yard loss that helped prevent the Ravens’ from extending their two-point lead before halftime.
It wasn’t the first time the Browns’ defense bailed out the special teams. In the first quarter, Josh Cribbs absorbed a devastating hit to the helmet from Dannell Ellerbe while returning a punt. Cribbs was eventually able to walk to the sideline and then to the locker room with members of the Browns’ medical staff, but he did not return to the game. Shurmur said Cribbs suffered a concussion. He lost his helmet and the ball during the play, and the fumble was upheld after a replay review from the booth.
The Ravens took control at the Browns’ 40. But five plays later, linebacker Craig Robertson cut in front of Boldin in the end zone and intercepted Flacco’s pass. Robertson’s clutch play snapped Flacco’s streak of 125 consecutive red-zone passes without an interception. Flacco finished with 356 yards passing and a touchdown, but running back Ray Rice had only 18 carries for 49 yards (2.7 average).
“They had some good series, and they did some things to keep us on our toes,” Browns middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “They ran the no-huddle [offense] a lot, but once we settled down and figured it out, we were able to make it a tight ballgame toward the end.”
However, Flacco carved up the secondary with consecutive completions of 39 and 34 yards during the Ravens’ next possession following Robertson’s interception. Flacco later connected with wide receiver Torrey Smith for an 18-yard touchdown pass. Smith sliced in front of Tashaun Gipson, who rotated with starter Usama Young at free safety, and grabbed the pass in the front of the end zone with 12:57 left in the second quarter.
The Ravens, though, did not convert the extra-point kick because holder Sam Koch dropped the snap as it zoomed a bit outside to his left. They extended their lead to 9-0 when Tucker made a 45-yard field goal with 10:03 left in the second quarter.
Still, the Browns countered throughout the game. They just couldn’t deliver the dagger in the end.
“We battled and came up short,” Weeden said. “But we fought our asses off.”
Postgame injury updates
Strong safety T.J. Ward had a cast on his right hand after the game. Ward said he suffered the injury during the defense’s first series of the game. When asked whether his hand is broken, Ward said, “I don’t know yet. I have to get it checked out. We’ll see when I get back, tonight probably.” … Gipson suffered a knee injury in the third quarter. … Young left the game in the fourth quarter with an injured right knee. … A trainer appeared to be looking at Weeden’s hand during a sideline examination midway through the third quarter, but Weeden did not miss any time.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at https://ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.