CLEVELAND (AP) — After all they endured over the past week, the Browns were seconds away from an unlikely leap into first place in the AFC North.
Instead, they’re at the bottom.
Unable to overcome a COVID-19 outbreak that ravaged their starting lineup, sidelining their top two quarterbacks and coach, the Browns were beaten 16-14 on Monday night by the Las Vegas Raiders, who won on Daniel Carlson’s 48-yard field goal as time expired.
A two-day postponement had raised the Browns’ hopes that they could overcome long odds. The Raiders dashed them.
“Just what we had to go through during the week and the guys that stepped up and put it all on the line, we were a play away and it did hurt,” said Browns left guard Joel Bitonio, who moved to left tackle with two starters out.
“I’ve been a part of a few losses that have hurt, but that’s definitely up there.”
With a win, the Browns (7-7) would have moved ahead of Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh in a tight division race unlikely to be decided until the final weekend.
The loss damaged Cleveland’s playoff chances further — the Browns are currently in the No. 12 spot — and will likely require them to string together wins at Green Bay and Pittsburgh and against Cincinnati in their home finale to have any shot at the postseason.
“It’s completely up for grabs still,” said star defensive end Myles Garrett, who played most of the fourth quarter with a groin injury. “We’ve just got to keep on working, keep on winning. The goal is still to win out, and our destiny is still in our favor if we continue to do the things we need to. ”
Following a sometimes-hard-to-stomach first half, it all seemed to finally be going the Browns’ way in the fourth quarter.
Third-string quarterback Nick Mullens, who was on the practice squad until late last week, rallied Cleveland to a 14-13 lead with a 6-yard touchdown pass — on fourth down — to tight end Harrison Bryant with 3:45 left.
The Browns then got a turnover when cornerback Greedy Williams picked off a deep ov erthrow by Raiders QB David Carr with 2:47 left. Cleveland, though, couldn’t pick up a first down as Nick Chubb was stopped on third-and-3, and burned only 57 seconds before punting.
Carr took it from there, setting up Carlson’s winning kick, which felt like another gut punch to the Browns and their fans.
“It really hurts,” said Mullens, who went 20 of 30 for 147 yards. “It was so cool, the stadium was rocking. I really believed in the fourth quarter this night was destined for Cleveland. But sometimes it doesn’t work out like that.”
There were moments Cleveland would like to have back.
Kicker Chase McLaughlin missed a 47-yard field goal on the final play of the first half. There were a couple drops, and running lanes that appeared to open for Chubb seemed to close off quickly on the Browns’ talented back.
“We fought hard,” said Chubb, who finished with 91 yards on 23 carries and a TD. “It wasn’t enough in the end, but our guys, I think we did fight our (butt) off. It was tough coming into the situation that we were in.
“A lot of guys stepped up that needed to step up. At the end of the day, we’ve got to finish, and we weren’t able to. Those guys finished on the other side, so that’s what happens.”
When the NFL postponed the game, moving it from Saturday to Monday, it appeared the Browns might catch a break and maybe get back quarterback Baker Mayfield and some of the other 21 players on the COVID-19 reserve list. But safety John Johnson III was the only player activated Monday, forcing Cleveland to use backups and players with little experience. Coach Kevin Stefanski was also unable to get back and watched from home.
In the end, it was too much to overcome.
“It was tough,” Garrett said. “But I can’t lie, I was excited before the game to attack another challenge. Something new, something different, and I know the guys who were next man up, they were ready to go, they were raring to go and get an opportunity to go out there and make some big plays, and they did.
“We just needed a couple more.”
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Tom Withers, The Associated Press