Cleveland – A steam-rolling in the middle wasn't quite enough to overcome a crawling start and spotty end. It wasn't enough to earn the New Orleans Saints their first victory of the 2014 season.
So for the second consecutive week, the Saints (0-2) claimed a late lead and failed to close the door behind them, allowing an opponent to sneak in and escape with the goods. On Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, it was Cleveland creeping away with a 26-24 victory in its home opener, secured on Billy Cundiff's 29-yard field goal with three seconds left.
In the season opener, Atlanta won 37-34 on a game-winning field goal in overtime, after the Saints led 20-7 in the second quarter and 34-31 prior to the last drive in regulation.
Cundiff's game-winner capped a 14-play, 85-yard drive after Thomas Morstead's 34-yard punt had pinned Cleveland at its 4-yard line with 2:46 remaining.
"We had our moments," Coach Sean Payton said. "I thought we came out real slow, we were able to kind of crawl back into the game. We've got to improve in a lot of areas. I've got to do a better job, our staff does. They were able to make the plays down the stretch and I'm disappointed that we weren't able to finish.
"Situational football is something you look at (as an area in which to improve). For the last two games, we haven't been very good at this. Being able to get off the field in the final drive like that. Offensively, we had an opportunity on third down (before Morstead's punt) and give up a sack.
"It's the thing we talked about – you don't know specifically which play it's coming on, but we certainly didn't finish. That's the thing that's most disappointing. I'll take responsibility for it and make sure that gets corrected. We obviously have to play better."
Despite the hiccups, there was an opportunity for the Saints to leave Cleveland with their first victory this season. After falling behind the Browns 16-3 in the first half, the Saints stormed back.
Trailing by 13 after Tashaun Gipson's 62-yard interception return with 3:25 left in the first half, the Saints constructed their second sustained drive of the game – a 12-play, 85-yard dissection that ended on Drew Brees' 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham with three seconds left, pulling New Orleans to within 16-10 at halftime.
After the Saints defense forced a punt on Cleveland's opening drive of the second half, New Orleans answered with another touchdown drive – an eight-play, 57-yarder that concluded with another touchdown pass from Brees to Graham, from 1 yard out.
The Browns responded with a long drive of their own. Running back Terrence West capped a 14-play, 80-yard march with a 9-yard run with 3:19 left in the third.
But the Saints' offense had one more answer. A 13-play, 80-yard grind that lasted 6:07 was concluded by Mark Ingram's 1-yard bull rush with 12:12 remaining in the game, and the 24-23 lead almost was enough.
But the door was left ajar.
"It's disappointing," right tackle Zach Strief said. "These games in this league are decided at the end. You're going to end up in a two-minute drill 12 out of 16 weeks. And really, that's both sides of the ball.
"We've had two opportunities to put games away, two weeks in a row, and haven't done it either time. We've got to be better all the way around.
"It's not panic mode in here. That's going to happen this week, this is going to be the week of crisis, there is going to be plenty of noise about, 'Are you no good? Can we stop anyone? Can we put enough points up?'
"It'll be never ending but this locker room will stay together. We have the right guys in here to deal with this. Every season has a crisis. Ours just happens to come early in the year."
It comes because the Browns (1-1) produced a stop and a drive.
With 8:59 left, after forcing a punt, the Saints began a drive at their 10-yard line. In 10 plays, they drove to the Browns' 31-yard line and were forced to call a timeout. But on third-and-5, Brees (27 for 40 for 237 yards and two touchdowns, with the interception) was sacked for the second time, for a 7-yard loss.
Likely pushed out of field-goal range, and holding a one-point lead, Morstead's punt pinned Cleveland deep.
But the Browns methodically drove, converting two third downs and one fourth down on their game-winning drive. On the most memorable play of the drive – second-and-10 from the Saints' 39-yard line, with 13 seconds left – quarterback Brian Hoyer connected with wide-open receiver Andrew Hawkins on a 28-yard completion, to the Saints' 11-yard line with six seconds remaining.
The Browns called timeout – a defensive holding penalty on the Saints was declined on the play – before Cundiff kicked the winner.
"We were in man coverage, they sent a motion man over, we ended up with a holding call on the play that they declined," Payton said. "Little things like that are troubling."
"Everybody had their hand in the jar," said outside linebacker Junior Galette, who had four tackles and produced the Saints' lone sack. "Even if the guy wasn't open, there was still a holding. Everyone had their hand in the jar, including myself. We just didn't finish. They finished better than us."
It was the only category that ended up mattering, considering the Saints mounted statistical advantages across the board.
New Orleans outgained Cleveland (397-324), was better on third down (7-for-13, vs. 7-for-16), had more first downs (26-23), was better in the red zone (3 for 4, against 2 for 4) and had possession longer (31:50-28:10).
But the lone turnover of the game loomed large, and the inability to close loomed larger.
"You just focus on the process of getting better," Brees said. "To lose in the way that we've lost – you can point to one play, in each of these games. One play away, in each of these games, from being 2-0 as opposed to 0-2. So that hurts. It's frustrating. I know how hard we work.
"But we've got to bear down, stay together, and understand that if we keep doing things the right way, then good things will happen. We just need to break the seal. We've just got to get our first win and I'm confident things will get rolling from there.
"There's a fine line between winning and losing. Last year at this time, we had two really close games. We made that play that resulted in wins, so we started off 2-0. Unfortunately, the flip side of that is this year we have not made those plays, and that' why we're 0-2."