Coming off their mini-bye, the Cleveland Browns blew a golden opportunity to improve their record to 3-1 on the road against the Atlanta Falcons, which would've given them the best record in the AFC North and a successful first month of the season. Instead, countless missed opportunities on offense including a pair of failed red zone trips allowed the Falcons the time to exploit a defense missing three starters on the defensive line and cobble together enough points to win the game, 23-20.
It started on the first drive of the game when the Browns effortlessly drove into the red zone. But an inability to capitalize with a touchdown capped off by a 4th-and-3 play inside the five yard-line in which Jacoby Brissett was forced to roll to his right, but threw the ball away rather than look back to hit one of two open receivers back to the left caused the Browns to come up empty.
The final score will cause people to criticize Stefanski's decision to go for the touchdown rather than opt for a field goal attempt inside the five, but it would've been a deflating decision to settle for three considering how effective the Browns have been on offense.
When Brissett was asked about whether he liked the aggression in his post-game press conference, he responded, "For sure. [Joshua] Dobbs was just saying this, like hindsight 20/20. We've been going for a lot of fourth downs. We've been getting them. Obviously, we're behind the aggressive plays because that's us. And we live with the results and go to the next play. We respect Kev for giving us the trust in this team, because it's not just the offense, it's about the defense and the special teams in that sense. So hey, they trust to go for it and we just gotta convert. And we will."
The players on offense knew how limited they were on defense with Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney unable to play in this game. Stefanski's offensive philosophy aims to empower his players, which has been a theme throughout his tenure. The Browns converted two other fourth-down conversions including one on their own half of the field which preceded the second of their red zone failures where they settled for a field goal.
Had Brissett hit tight end Harrison Bryant in the end zone, the Browns would have put pressure on the Falcons on some key decisions in the second half.
After quarterback Jacoby Brissett rushed for a touchdown to reduce the deficit to 10-7, the offense would once again fall short this time from the 1-yard line. After failing to punch the ball in running the ball on first down, the Browns went with a pass on second down which was incomplete. Wyatt Teller was called for holding penalty that moved the Browns back ten yards. A pair of incomplete passes intended for Kareem Hunt and Amari Cooper would lead to a decision to kick the field goal.
The Browns, despite controlling the ball for the overwhelming majority of the first half, went into the locker room with a 10-10 tie. Those missed opportunities would haunt them in the second half when they struggled to move the ball. The undermanned Browns defense was able to deliver three stops to start the third quarter including a Denzel Ward interception that gave the offense the ball at the Falcons 43-yard line. After getting one first down, the Browns could only manage five yards on their net three plays and settled for a 45-yard York field goal to give them a 13-10 lead.
At that point, the Falcons decided to challenge the Browns depleted front seven with their running game. They ran ten consecutive plays, mostly with Caleb Huntley, a running back activated from the practice squad this week, who finished the drive with a 5-yard touchdown, giving the Falcons a temporary 17-13 lead.
The Browns offense was able to respond immediately with a drive led by Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. In just six plays, the Browns moved 75 yards which included a 20-yard run from Hunt and then a 28-yard touchdown from Chubb, giving the Browns a 20-17 lead. That would be the end of the fireworks on offense by the Browns.
The Falcons would engineer back to back drives that traveled the field quickly, but were stopped short of the end zone. Younghoe Koo hit on 21 and 45-yard attempts to give the Falcons a 23-20 lead with 2:32 left in the game.
On their final drive of the game, Brissett found rookie David Bell, who made a contested 20-yard reception near the left sideline. He then found Donovan Peoples-Jones for a 6-yard reception. The Browns quickly found themselves in Falcons territory after Brissett scrambled for five on a free play caused by an offsides penalty and a three-yard Hunt run.
The final three-play sequence summed up the Browns day. A failed screen pass, one of four on the day, resulted in a penalty for illegal man down field because Brissett hesitated, not hitting the open screen immediately, forced the Browns to move back five yards. He then took a sack he couldn't take, losing another eight yards. On 3rd-and-23, he threw a pass into coverage that was intercepted instead of going underneath to running back D'Ernest Johnson, which would've at least given them a chance to attempt a game-tying field goal.
The Browns defense was gashed on the ground for 202 yards by the Falcons, but Marcus Mariota only completed was just seven of 19 passing for 139 yards, 68 of which came on their first drive of the game. Mariota also completed a 42-yard pass late in the game when he had all day to sit in the pocket before finding Olamide Zacchaeus wide open in the middle of the field.
This game was there for the Browns offense to take and they gagged it. Stefanski and the offense made several questionable play calls in the game, especially with the opportunity to score points. He blamed himself after the game for the loss.
"I need to own a large a large part of that. We gotta come away with points down there in the red zone, especially early. One for three in the red zone is not good enough. There's a lot of things that you wish you could take back, but woulda, coulda, shoulda."
Brissett wasn't as accurate or as good with his decision-making as he had been the previous two weeks and couldn't execute a screen pass to save his life. Amari Cooper was held to just one catch for nine yards in the game. David Njoku led the team with 73 receiving yards but fumbled the ball away, which resulted in a Falcons touchdowns.
Nick Chubb once again thrived, carrying the ball 19 times for 118 yards and a touchdown. Kareem Hunt chipped in 68 yards on 12 touches, but they were part of a group that couldn't capitalize inside the five-yard line with multiple opportunities.
The Browns could be 4-0 if they took full advantage of opportunities presented to them. They could also be 1-3. The fact is they are 2-2 and they look it. Now, they prepare for to host the Los Angeles Chargers with yet another reminder of how easy it is to lose football games they don't finish.