Browns lose chance to clinch playoff berth, fall to Bengals, 19-14

Loss hands Steelers the AFC North crown

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CINCINNATI -- Like one of Derek Anderson's wind-blown passes, the chance to clinch a playoff spot slipped right through the Cleveland Browns' hands.

No surprise, really. Nothing comes easy to these guys.

Now, there's a chance the playoffs may not come their way at all.

Anderson threw four interceptions yesterday, two of them setting up rapid-fire touchdowns in a 19-14 victory by the Cincinnati Bengals that left the upstart Browns scrambling for a playoff spot instead of celebrating one.

"We're getting close," receiver Joe Jurevicius said. "We're still a young team. We've got to correct a few mistakes. It's not time to put our heads down and sulk."

Instead, it's time to sweat a little.

Cleveland (9-6) could have clinched with a victory against the down-and-out Bengals (6-9), who had nothing more than pride on the line and several starters out with injuries. The Browns acted more like the team playing it out.

They dropped passes. They botched a field-goal attempt. They came up short on fourth-and-short. Ultimately, they couldn't overcome a bad game by Anderson, who had his best moments when the intrastate rivals met in September.

"It's a tough battle to fight when you're throwing four picks," Anderson said. "A couple of them were bad decisions, and a couple of them got hung up in the air."

He tied his career high with the four interceptions, leaving the Browns needing help to get a wild-card berth. Tennessee's 10-6 victory against the Jets left the two teams tied with 9-6 records, but the Titans have the tiebreaker on their side.

Cleveland finishes at home against San Francisco. Tennessee ends the season at Indianapolis, which has already clinched the AFC's No. 2 seed.

With Cleveland's loss, the Steelers won the AFC North title.

Anderson's interceptions on consecutive plays helped the Bengals score two touchdowns in a 39-second span late in the first half, putting them up, 19-0. He also had a deflected pass intercepted in the end zone, and another picked off inside the 20.

Given one final chance when Kenny Watson fumbled at the Cleveland 17 with 1:48 left, the Browns drove to the Bengals' 29. Anderson's desperation pass into the end zone as time ran out was knocked down with no Browns receiver close.

"We're just out there trying to get some positive momentum for next year," said rookie safety Chinedum Ndukwe, whose 44-yard interception return set up the first touchdown.

Anderson threw five touchdown passes in a 51-45 win against the Bengals in the second week of the season, a career day that got Cleveland headed in the right direction.

With a chance to take that final step into the playoffs, Anderson went 29 of 48 for 250 yards with two touchdown passes to Braylon Edwards.

"There were some throws where the ball just died or went in a completely different direction than he was anticipating," said Edwards, who passed Gary Collins for the franchise record with 15 touchdown catches.

It wasn't all his fault, of course.

One of the NFL's worst defenses allowed Watson to run for 130 yards and a touchdown, only the fourth 100-yard game of his career. Starter Rudi Johnson was inactive with a hamstring injury that has bothered him most of the season.

Cleveland's defense has given up the most yards in the league. It couldn't stop a reserve running back when it knew he was coming.

"We've struggled with the run all year," Browns coach Romeo Crennel said. "We struggled with the run today. What's happened over the course of the year happened today."

Watson's solid game helped the Bengals to hold onto the 19-point lead. Like Anderson, Carson Palmer also struggled with the gusting wind, going 11 of 21 for 115 yards with two interceptions and one touchdown.

"I never really got a good sense of which way it was blowing," Palmer said. "It was really swirling. It was an ugly game, and a tough one to play in if you're trying to throw the football."

The Browns had everything in their favor. Thousands of their fans were in the stands, taking advantage of local indifference to another losing season. Scalpers had plenty of tickets available on street corners.

The wind swirled through Paul Brown Stadium, made the goal posts gyrate and dropped the wind chill into the teens -- not the best conditions, but still far better than the whiteout for Cleveland's 8-0 win against Buffalo last week that also came down to the final drive.

The Browns' season will go right down to the end, too."We definitely feel this is a step in the right direction. We still got another step to go. We know Baltimore is going to play us tough."

-- James Farrior, after Steelers victory Thursday night



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