Just like so many painful playoff losses in their past, the Browns came up achingly short — inches from a game-swinging play, inches from a last chance.
Cleveland's turnaround season ended Sunday in heartbreak.
“For now," said quarterback Baker Mayfield. “It's definitely going to sting.”
Unable to take advantage of Kansas City superstar Patrick Mahomes being out with a concussion, the Browns let backup quarterback Chad Henne make two huge plays in the final two minutes and lost 22-17 in the divisional round.
After trailing 19-3, the Browns (12-6) fought back and were in position to maybe end the Super Bowl champions' one-year reign. But Cleveland couldn't stop Henne from scrambling for 13 yards on a third-and-14, then completing a s hort pass on fourth down to Tyreek Hill with 1:14 left to push the Chiefs into the AFC championship game for the third straight year.
“It came down to us on defense and we let it slip,” said Browns star defensive end Myles Garrett, who played most of the game with an oblique injury. ”We had two opportunities. We didn’t make it happen. It was right in front of us and we just didn’t get it done.”
So close. So Browns.
While this postseason loss won't be stamped with a nickname like “The Drive” or “The Fumble" — the most notable playoff misses for a franchise finally back on its feet — it was nearly as painful for the Browns and their fans.
“It hurts,” said first-year coach Kevin Stefsanksi, who missed Cleveland's wild-card win last week in Pittsburgh with COVID-19. "There is a finality to this one when you do not get it done in the playoffs, and that really hurts. I appreciate how our guys battled. They fought like they do every single week, and it just was not enough today.”
While the last sequence was especially hard to stomach, the Browns missed a huge chance late in the first half that would have ripped momentum away from Mahomes and the Chiefs (15-2).
With the Browns trailing 16-3 with 1:42 left before halftime, M ayfield completed a 25-yard pass to wide receiver Rashard Higgins, who caught it while stumbling near Kansas City's 5-yard line but managed to keep moving toward the goal line.
Higgins launched himself toward the corner pylon, extended his arms and got blasted from the side — and in the helmet — by Chiefs linebacker Daniel Sorensen, who dislodged the ball, which rolled out of the end zone for a touchback.
So instead of cutting Kansas City's lead to six, the Browns were back on defense and Mahomes quickly drove the Chiefs for a field goal to take a 16-point halftime lead.
Stefanski praised Higgins' tenacity on the play, but said the receiver made a mistake in reaching out and leaving the ball exposed.
“I will never ever doubt Rashard Higgins’ effort or our guys’ effort,” Stefanski said. "Our rule there is not to reach the ball out when it is first-and-goal, and he knows that. Again, appreciate his effort. He battled like he always does, but we have to fight that urge because it is such a big loss if it does end up being a touchback.”
And has been the case all season, there was other adversity for the Brown to overcome.
Rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills injured his ankle on the first offensive play and was done. Then his backup, Kendall Lamm, hurt his elbow and the Browns were again forced to play reserve Blake Hance, who came off the bench a week ago to play guard against the Steelers.
Hance, or “that guy named Blake” as Mayfield calls him, spent 16 weeks on the Jets' practice squad and only met Stefanski on Thursday.
Despite the obstacles, and with Mahomes out after he was thrown down hard by Cleveland linebacker Mack Wilson in the third quarter, the Browns came back.
Kareem Hunt muscled his way in on a 3-yard TD run to pull the Browns within five. When Henne was intercepted by Karl Joseph on Kansas City's next possession, it looked like Cleveland, one of four teams to never make the Super Bowl, might pull off a stunner.
However, Kansas City's defense dug in and forced the Browns to punt with 4:19 left. Cleveland would never touch the ball again after Henne's heroics.
As they watched on the sideline, Mayfield and his offensive teammates felt that with one last chance, the Chiefs were finished.
“We did, and I think that is what hurts the most,” he said. “They went for it because I think they could feel that, too."
There will be time for the Browns to reflect on this strange season. For the first time in forever, the future looks bright.
“We have a hell of a team all around,” Garrett said. “We showed that we can go to the AFC championship. We were just one play away. We just have to make that play.”
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL