Heartbreaking defeat vs. Raiders puts battered Browns on the brink

CLEVELAND -- COVID-19 gutted the Cleveland Browns' roster. Then, the Raiders gutted their locker room.

The depleted Browns put up an inspirational effort Monday night against the Las Vegas Raiders. And they nearly came through with what would’ve been a galvanizing victory. Instead, Daniel Carlson's 48-yard field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired, leaving the Browns emotionally and physically battered, their playoff hopes on the brink.

Myles Garrett's despondent face as he gingerly hobbled off the field into the tunnel said it all.

“That locker room right now is hurting ... the most I’ve seen it in that kind of pain,” acting Browns head coach Mike Priefer said afterward. “We’ll have our job cut out for us this week ... in terms of getting their spirits back up.”

At 7-7 and in last place in the AFC North standings, Cleveland is entering its final stand in the wake of another deflating defeat. The Browns are still alive in the playoff chase. But holding just a 16.4% chance to advance to the postseason, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the margin for error is slim.

Only a Browns Christmas Day miracle Saturday in Green Bay (4:30 p.m. ET on Fox) against arguably the NFL’s best team can change that equation. And if Garrett can’t play against the Packers due to the groin injury he suffered Monday, that challenge becomes all the more daunting.

While it obviously hasn’t helped, the Browns didn’t reach this point merely by what happened in the past week. They’ve had multiple opportunities to gain a stranglehold on the AFC North, and yet consistently have been unable to win games in the fourth quarter.

In Week 1, they led the Kansas City Chiefs by two scores late, only to completely fall apart down the stretch.

In Week 5, they were up on the Los Angeles Chargers by a touchdown in the final four minutes but couldn’t put them away, even after Los Angeles missed the tying extra point with 3:15 to play.

In Week 8, the Browns allowed the offensively toothless Pittsburgh Steelers to dominate them in the fourth quarter, even without a field goal kicker.

And in Week 12 in Baltimore, they couldn’t capitalize off four Lamar Jackson interceptions, as another potential game-winning drive came up short.

Monday against the Raiders, the result was the same. Only, due to COVID-19, many of the players were different.

And those players, including if not especially the backups seeing their first significant playing time of the year, fought valiantly, sensing the stakes.

Reserve safeties Jovante Moffatt and M.J. Stewart put the clamps on Las Vegas’ passing game. Porter Gustin, fresh off the practice squad, recovered a fumble off Sheldon Day's sack, which set up Cleveland’s first score of the game in the third quarter.

Then third-string quarterback Nick Mullens took Cleveland down the field for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, capped by a scrambling fourth-down touchdown pass to Harrison Bryant.

But once again, Cleveland couldn’t deliver the clinching first down. And again, couldn’t come through with the game-ending stop.

“The stadium was rocking. I really believed in the fourth quarter that this night was destined for Cleveland,” Mullens said. “But sometimes it doesn’t work out like that.”

A season that once seemed destined for Cleveland hasn’t worked out, either. Leaving the beleaguered Browns with one final gasp to turn it around.