Behind Enemy Lines: Browns play hard, earn hard loss

They pushed the Baltimore Ravens downfield. They stuffed the ball down their throats. They scored two touchdowns on them. They finally put points on the board in the second half.

Yes, there were some moral victories claimed by the Browns in loud M&T; Bank Stadium on an overcast Sunday.

But Ray Lewis, the linebacker and spiritual leader of the Ravens' defense, broke down the game succinctly when he stated, "There's one thing that matters in this business, and that's wins and losses."

The Browns found a way to lose their third game in a row despite a career-high 144 yards rushing by downhill runner Peyton Hillis. No Browns back ever posted 100 yards on the Ravens before.

The Ravens prevailed, 24-17, because receiver Anquan Boldin's three touchdowns trumped Hillis' one.

Early in the game, Boldin became the fastest player in NFL history to reach 600 career catches. It looked like he would threaten 700 by day's end. Boldin caught eight of 11 passes thrown to him by quarterback Joe Flacco, scoring on receptions of eight, 12 and 27 yards.

A last-instant breakup by rookie safety T.J. Ward in the fourth quarter kept Boldin from a four-TD game. All the touchdowns and the total of eight catches for 142 yards were the result of uncommonly poor coverage by cornerback Eric Wright -- who seemed lost, some miscommunication with the safeties, and no pressure on Flacco.

A distraught Wright stood in front of his locker after the game and offered no excuses for what surely was the toughest game of 49 in his Browns career. If there were some underlying reason for Wright's uncharacteristic performance, he wasn't giving it up.

"I didn't feel like myself today," Wright said. "I didn't play up to my abilities. I had a horrible day, and I let my team down."

Coach Eric Mangini seemed to protect Wright in his post-game comments, saying the non-existent pressure allowed Flacco to feel too comfortable. The Baltimore quarterback was coming off a four-interception game. His confidence grew as the day wore on.

Enlarge Joshua Gunter, The Plain Dealer Cleveland Browns Peyton Hillis fights his way past Baltimore Ravens Tom Zbikowski in the third quarter Sunday, September 26, 2010 in Baltimore. Baltimore won the game 24-17. (Joshua Gunter/ The Plain Dealer) Browns lose to Ravens 24-17 gallery (15 photos)

You wonder how Flacco would have responded if Ward had not dropped an interception on his first throw. Linebacker Matt Roth nailed Flacco on a blitz. Ward had the end zone staring him in the face, and he took his eyes off the ball.

After that, nobody but linebacker Scott Fujita got a good lick on Flacco the rest of the game. It didn't help the Browns' cause that edge rusher Marcus Benard was inactive with an ankle injury.

Boldin's third touchdown reclaimed the lead for the Ravens after the Browns had forged ahead, 17-14, on Seneca Wallace's one-yard TD throw to tight end Benjamin Watson on the first play of the fourth quarter. They were the Browns' first points of the season in the second half.

Had the game ended there, Canton would be calling for Hillis' cleats and shoulder pads, for they were putting scrapes on the Ravens' noses and egos through three quarters.

In a game plan similar to the ones Mangini and coordinator Brian Daboll used for the four wins in a row last December, Hillis banged away relentlessly behind the blocking of the offensive line and fullback Lawrence Vickers.

Hillis had 28 yards in the first quarter, 45 and a one-yard TD in the second, and 71 in the third, including a blast into the secondary of 48 yards that set up the go-ahead touchdown. The Ravens were deflating on their home turf.

"We felt it, saw it, in their body language," said left tackle Joe Thomas. "They weren't jumping around like they usually do. We hit them in the mouth. We were able to run at them."

Vickers said, "It was fun for us. We were smash-mouth. I think that's what our fans want to see from us."

Hillis had not run for 100 yards in a game since doing it for Denver against Mangini's Jets in 2008.

"I'm not easily impressed, but he impressed me," said Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs.

"It was amazing," Hillis said of the blocking. "I think we showed today that we can run the ball against one of the best defenses in the league. I really felt that we accomplished something, playing together, handling adversity in an away game like we have."

But it was not enough, of course. Hillis didn't gain another yard in the pivotal fourth quarter.

The perfect game scenario -- so essential in a limited offensive game plan that saw Wallace throw one time to No. 1 receiver Mohamed Massaquoi -- came undone on the first offensive snap after Baltimore's go-ahead score.

First, Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff booted the ball eight yards deep into the end zone for a touchback, taking the ball out of Josh Cribbs' hands.

On first down from the 20, Wallace had a brain cramp and was caught between pitching and handing the ball to Hillis. He mistakenly pitched it, and the loose ball bounded to the Ravens' 3, where Wallace dived on it. Not even the mighty Hillis could drag his teammates out of that hole.

Baltimore capitalized on great field position after the punt and Cundiff converted a field goal of 49 yards. And then Cundiff -- Cundiff! -- responded with another kickoff nine yards deep.

"I didn't know he had a leg like that," Cribbs said of his one-time teammate.

The Browns still had 5:29 on the clock, and 80 yards to go. But whatever big plays are written in Brian Daboll's thick playbook, there are no playmakers to run them. Wallace went three-and-out on a handoff to Hillis, a short completion to Hillis -- one of his seven catches -- and an incompletion intended for Cribbs.

So the Browns are 0-3 for the third year in a row. They've held a lead in the fourth quarter in each game this season.

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