CLEVELAND, Ohio –Bah-humbug.
The Browns gave their frozen fans nothing but a lump of coal on Christmas Eve with a 17-10 loss to the Saints at frozen FirstEnergy Stadium after leading 10-0 in the second quarter.
The loss dropped the Browns to 6-9 and eliminated them from playoff contention once and for all. The Saints improved to 6-9 to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson struggled in the frigid conditions, completing 15-of-31 attempts for 135 yards with no touchdowns and one interception for a 47.1 rating. He went ice-cold in the second half.
Nick Chubb rushed for 92 yards, but it wasn’t enough, as the Browns failed to score in the second half.
Trailing 17-10, Watson took over at his 20 with 5:16 left and all three timeouts remaining. He shook off a sack and hit Amari Cooper with a 14-yard pass to the Saints 33 and David Bell with an 18-yarder to the 15.
But Watson threw three straight incompletions — one pass to Cooper, and drops by Donovan Peoples-Jones and tight end David Njoku in the end zone — and was sacked on fourth down to end the game.
Watson struggled to hit his mark amid the fierce winds whipping off the lake, with gusts of more than 30 mph. Temperature at kickoff was 6 degrees, making it the coldest regular-season game in Browns history. Windchill made it feel like minus-16.
“Both teams have to play in it,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said of the conditions after the loss. “You have to find a way.”
It didn’t stop Njoku from living up to his promise to warm up shirtless before the game. Staying outside that way for about nine minutes, Njoku caught some passes and meditated in the end zone before jogging back into the locker room. Two Saints players also came out shirtless for warmups.
The Browns led 10-0 in the second quarter, but gave up 17 straight points to the Saints after they featured dual-threat quarterback/running back Taysom Hill, who platooned with Andy Dalton. Dalton was 8 of 15 passing for 92 yards, with a passer rating of 44.3.
With the Saints clinging to their 17-10 lead in the fourth quarter, Alvin Kamara caught a 29-yard pass over Deion Jones near midfield. But Greg Newsome II forced the Saints to punt three plays later when he broke up a deep ball to receiver Keith Kirkwood down the left side.
The Browns turned the ball over on downs with 6:55 left in the game to start New Orleans at the Browns’ 39, but the defense forced a three-and-out to give the Browns another chance. But they couldn’t finish it off.
In the first half, the Browns encouraged their fans to move down into the sparsely populated lower bowl for a better view — and perhaps to huddle together for warmth. After that the third deck was empty and the middle deck was spotty.
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New Orleans went ahead for the first time, 17-10, with 55 seconds left in the third quarter on a 4-yard run by Kamara. The TD cashed in on Deshaun Watson’s interception by Daniel Sorenson that went off David Bell’s hands. Sorensen returned the interception 36 yards to start the Saints at the Browns’ 15. Four plays later, Kamara plowed in from the 4-yard line, crashing through a wall at the goal-line.
The Saints had executed the dreaded double-dip to tie the game at 10 with 9:40 left in the third quarter: They kicked a 23-yard goal as time expired in the first half to pull within 10-3, and scored again on the first drive of the second half, tying it 10-10 on an 8-yard TD run by Taysom Hill on a 9-play march.
Relying more on Hill and Kamara, the Saints gashed the Browns for 152 rushing yards on the day. The Browns ran for 124.
The Browns led 10-3 at the half on a 12-yard TD run by Deshaun Watson and a 30-yard field goal by Cade York.
The Saints narrowed the gap on a 23-yard Wil Lutz field goal as time expired in the first half.
Watson’s TD run cashed in on Grant Delpit’s interception off of Andy Dalton with 2:44 left in the first quarter on a pass over the middle that was tipped by tight end Juwan Johnson, who was tightly covered by Browns safety John Johnson III.
Delpit returned the ball 40 yards and jumped into the Dawg Pound, where he was mobbed by fans and teammates alike.
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The Browns started at the Saints’ 30, and managed their first first down of the game after going three-and-out on each of their first three possessions for a total of 10 yards.
Njoku caught a 6-yard pass to the 12, and Watson took it from there, high-stepping his way into the left side of the end for his first rushing touchdown with the Browns on the first play of the second quarter.
Watson was so fired up, he jumped into the VIP box on the left side of the field, and sat with fans for a moment, much to their delight.
The Browns forced a three-and-out on the Saints’ ensuing drive, and Watson marched the Browns to the Saints’ 12. After dancing around in the backfield waiting for a receiver to come open, Watson found Cooper all alone in the back of the end zone and delivered the perfect ball. But Cooper slipped on the snow-covered grass and dropped the pass.
York stepped up and nailed a 30-yard kick to make it 10-0 with 4:07 left in the half.
The Saints ran Hill more on the final drive of the first half, and he gained 11 and 16 yards on the field goal drive. But the Browns stopped him for 1 and 2 yards from the 8 and 7, and the Saints had to settle for the field goal.
The Browns visit the Washington Commanders on New Year’s Day. Kickoff is set for 1 pm
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