San Diego's Sammy Davis, right, bats away a pass intended for the Browns' Kevin Johnson. The Cleveland wide receiver caught 5 passes for 53 yards.
CLEVELAND - Here's one way to look at it.
If the National Football League is indeed fashioned around parity with no team too good and no team too bad, where on any given Sunday anybody can win and anybody can lose, where the greatest consistency is inconsistency, perhaps the Cleveland Browns are the model franchise.
The Browns are capable of the highest of highs, like back-to-back wins over Pittsburgh and Oakland that vaulted them out of a deep hole and onto solid footing.
And they are equally capable of rolling back down the hill by losing at home to previously winless San Diego, as they did yesterday by a 26-20 margin.
“We have to quit letting games like these slip away,” cornerback Daylon McCutcheon said.
This one got away because the Browns took the field without passion, because Tim Couch made two awful throws before being excused for the day, because receivers cut routes short on several occasions and dropped passes a bunch of times, because penalties negated a couple nice kick returns and dictated poor field position, because a personal foul fueled a late Charger drive and blunted Cleveland momentum.
These Browns just can't quite seem to turn the corner.
“When you beat yourself, you can only point at yourself,” said Cleveland quarterback Kelly Holcomb, who came off the bench in relief of Couch late in the third quarter.
By then, the Browns trailed the Chargers and LaDainian Tomlinson by 17 points.
It was 13-0 after safety Kwamie Lassiter picked off a Couch pass and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown with 5:27 left in the first half.
Cleveland's James Jackson pulls away from San Diego's Kevin House. Jackson shared running back duties for the Browns with William Green and Jamel White.
It was 20-6 after Tomlinson, who carried 26 times for 200 yards, broke two tackles and ripped off a 70-yard run for a touchdown early in the third quarter.
And it reached 23-6 when Couch was intercepted by Terrence Kiel, who produced a 15-yard return to the Browns' 32-yard line and set up a 42-yard field goal by Steve Christie later that same quarter.
“I didn't play well,” a somber Couch said afterwards. “I tried to do too much and got us in trouble. We were not very consistent and we didn't execute. Lassiter kind of rolled down and I didn't see him there. He just read my eyes and made a play.”
The Browns didn't make any of their own until coach Butch Davis gave Couch the hook.
“On the heels of those two interceptions, we thought we needed a spark,” Davis said. “Kelly is still not 100 percent health-wise, but we felt if we put him in the shotgun and protected well enough, he could help us. And Kelly came in and did an excellent job. He gave us that spark; we made some plays and made it into a ballgame.”
Holcomb, the one-time starter who had not played since suffering leg and ankle injuries during a win at San Francisco on Sept. 21, came on with 2:57 left in the third quarter and led the Browns to two quick scores.
The first drive was aided by a long, pass-interference penalty and was capped by a six-yard touchdown pass to Dennis Northcutt.
When Cleveland's Barry Gardner forced a fumble from Tim Dwight on the ensuing kickoff return, the Browns were in business at the Chargers' 35.
Holcomb whipped the crowd of 73,238 into frenzy by hitting Kevin Johnson for a fourth-down conversion, then with a quick out to tight end Darnell Sanders for a score that pulled the Browns within 23-20.
“We didn't do anything differently,” Holcomb said. “We just started making some plays. In the first half, it was like people were sitting around waiting for somebody else to make plays. We finally made some.
“But you're not going to win many games playing for 15 minutes. And that's really all we did.”
The Browns had all the momentum and nearly 10 minutes to complete the climb, but linebacker Andra Davis was called for roughing the passer with a blow to the head of Drew Brees on an incomplete, third-down pass, allowing the Chargers to continue a drive that eventually took 7:56 off the clock and resulted in a Christie field goal for a 26-20 San Diego lead.
“I knew he was going to throw it and I tried to get my hands up to get them in his way and try to force a bad throw,” Davis said. “I guess that part worked, but I might have hit him coming down.”
Cleveland got the ball back with 3:40 to play and advanced to midfield, but Holcomb misfired on three straight passes and the comeback bid dissolved.
“We tried to fight our way out of a tough deal and got into it in the second half,” said Davis, whose team dipped to 3-4. “But it was a horrible waste of an effort in the first half. We played about as inconsistently and poorly as a team can possibly play in several different areas.”