Cincinnati strong safety Shawn Williams deflects a second-quarter punt by Cleveland's Spencer Lanning. The punt went nine yards and led to a Bengals touchdown.
BEREA, Ohio — The Browns returned home with a rough, white-knuckle landing in windy conditions at Hopkins International Airport that had some players on the plane fearing for their lives.
"Everyone was freaking out," tight end Jordan Cameron said. "I didn't think it was that bad. Some guys were calling their moms after the flight."
Unfortunately, they didn't handle the turbulence in Cincinnati any better.
After opening a quick 13-0 lead, the Browns unraveled and gave up 31 unanswered points during the second quarter. In just 15 minutes, the Bengals recorded an interception, blocked two punts (one technically called a deflection) — taking one back for a touchdown — returned a fumble for a TD, and turned an important AFC North matchup into a one-sided, laughable rout.
Just like that.
In their biggest game since 2007, the Browns (4-6) crumbled quickly.
"The game just got away from us," coach Rob Chudzinski said. "We have to play better in all three phases. Our veterans have to play better, our young guys have to play better, and it needs to happen right away."
This was Cleveland's big moment, the chance for the Browns to pull closer to the division's top, sweep their in-state rival, enhance their national relevance, and legitimize their playoff chances.
The Browns failed across the board. They didn't take advantage of early scoring chances on offense; their special teams imploded; and the defense, despite playing sound football for most of the afternoon, couldn't get vital stops. The Browns may have had a large statistical edge, but they came up short on the scoreboard and let an opportunity slip away.
"We didn't play the way that we were capable of playing, and weren't able to get it done," Chudzinski said. "It's important that we learn from this and when we have an opportunity again, which we will in the future, that this is an experience that the guys will be able to draw from and that'll help us in the future."
And as for the heart-in-your-throat landing, Chudzinski hardly noticed.
"I was watching tape," he said, "and was pretty engrossed in that on the way back."
There was plenty to assess — in the bizarre second quarter alone.
Despite having the ball for 11 minutes, 18 seconds to Cincinnati's 3:42, the Browns were still outscored 31-0 and trailed by 18 points at halftime. Chudzinski said Cleveland's blocking breakdowns on the two punts were "unacceptable," and he was almost at a loss to explain how a game could pivot 180 degrees so abruptly.
"As I look at it, it was a lot of things that happened that are atypical," Chudzinski said. "So it was less about a snowball and more about some things happening that were a little bit more out of the ordinary that you don't expect necessarily in a game."
Chudzinski said the Browns have been shuffling players in and out of their punt team, but didn't use personnel changes as an excuse. He did identify rookie linebackers Barkevious Mingo and Eric Martin as missing their assignments on the second block, which was scooped up by the Bengals and returned 24 yards for a touchdown to give Cincinnati a 21-14 lead.
Browns long snapper Christian Yount accepted blame for the first punting mishap, saying he didn't recognize a "stunt" rush and his snap to punter Spencer Lanning was off line.
"It was kind of a perfect storm," he said.
The miscues wouldn't have been so deflating if the Browns had only scored touchdowns on two early possessions instead of settling for field goals. On consecutive plays, quarterback Jason Campbell, who threw three interceptions, missed a wide-open Cameron in the end zone and then had a pass to Greg Little — even more open than Cameron — batted down at the line.
Campbell finished 27 of 56 for 248 yards with one TD and the three picks. It was a disappointing performance for the 31-year-old, who had played so well in Cleveland's two previous games. Chudzinski said Campbell told him that ribs he bruised against Baltimore two weeks ago weren't an issue and it was just one of those games.
"He's the first one to say he needs to do better," Chudzinski said.
"As I've said many times before, the key to quarterback and that position is how guys bounce back when they're having some adversity or don't play as well as they would have liked."
All of the Browns need to shake off the calamity in Cincinnati and be ready this week for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who beat Detroit on Sunday and are suddenly looking more like themselves.
The Browns believe they're good enough to be a contender. Now, they've got to show it.
NOTES: Chudzinski said starting LB Craig Robertson sprained his knee and will have an MRI. Also, WR/KR Armanti Edwards has an ankle injury requiring further tests. ... The loss overshadowed the job CB Joe Haden did in shutting down Bengals star WR A.J. Green, who had just two catches for seven yards. Haden also returned an interception 29 yards for a TD. "He's playing at a high level," Chudzinski said. "He had a great game."