Whether or not you believe in the “Madden Curse,” it’s hard not to reference the popular theory when looking at the season of the 2011-2012 Cleveland Browns after starting running back Peyton Hillis ended up as the fan’s choice for the cover of Madden NFL 12. I was in New York City with EA SPORTS in April 2011 when Hillis was announced as the cover athlete and photographed for the cover in Times Square, and at the time the NFL Lockout was still in place but Cleveland fans were beginning to feel hopeful about their team being able to turn things around and compete for a playoff spot out of the AFC North.
Fast-forward to the present, and the Browns have been eliminated from playoff contention and sit firmly in the cellar of their division. Quarterback Colt McCoy has in many ways regressed from his play last season, and the team has been beset by numerous injuries to their skill players, including multiple missed games for Hillis. With all of this disappointment in mind, I took control of the Browns for STAT BOX STORIES this week as they hit the road to take on division rival Baltimore. Could I help Cleveland and their fans find a bright spot in the waning weeks of the season with an upset victory over the Ravens?
Of all the games I have played for this blog thus far, this was probably the strangest victory I have managed. On the scoreboard, the 34-14 final result looks fairly one-sided. Digging deeper into the actual run of the game, however, reveals a decided slant towards defense and special teams play helping the Browns pull off the upset.
I won the coin toss to begin the game and elected—as per usual—to kick off to begin the game and have the ball first in the second half. The game started off well for me as back to back sacks of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco forced Baltimore to go three-and-out and punt the ball. On my first offensive possession I drove the Browns into field goal range, but an inopportune sack on third down pushed me out of position and I had to settle for pinning Baltimore on their own 2-yard-line with a well-hit punt.
From that poor field position, however, the Ravens strung together a series of plays that found them in a first-and-goal situation. On second down with just a few yards to go for a touchdown, however, Ray Ventrone snagged a Flacco pass and returned it 96 yards for a defensive touchdown and the first points of the game as the first quarter expired.
The second quarter went scoreless for quite a while as well, with Baltimore nearly losing a fumble on the kickoff to begin the quarter and then going three-and-out before Cleveland suffered a three-and-out as well. With just over two minutes remaining in the first half, Baltimore’s drive stalled and they had to punt again. This time, Cleveland drove successfully until a 14-yard pass from Colt McCoy to Benjamin Watson resulted in a touchdown and a 14-0 lead for the visiting side.
With under a minute to play, Baltimore’s offense suddenly found their stride using the no-huddle. The Browns defense was unable to slow them down as the seconds ticked away, and with 18 seconds on the clock Ray Rice charged into the end zone from four yards out to cut the lead to a touchdown.
In the third quarter, Cleveland got stuck with poor field position after McCoy was sacked on their opening drive, and the Browns had to punt the ball away from their own 1-yard-line. Ray Ventrone—the unsung hero and Player of the Game for Cleveland—forced the punt returner to fumble the ball and the loose ball was recovered by the Browns to keep their possession going. Three plays later, Cleveland was forced to punt the ball away again. And—incredibly—Cleveland’s special team players came through again, with the punt returner fumbling the ball away and fullback Owen Marecic recovering the ball for a 15-yard fumble return for a touchdown. It was certainly an unorthodox way to drive the field, but the end result was seven more points and a 21-7 lead halfway through the third quarter.
Baltimore’s next drive ended in a punt, followed by yet another Cleveland three-and-out; the Ravens managed to successfully field that play, however, and a long pass fooled Cleveland’s defensive back on a 44-yard scoring throw from Joe Flacco to Lee Evans, once again trimming the deficit to 7.
Just over a minute later, however, Peyton Hillis broke through the line of scrimmage and rumbled to a 53-yard touchdown run to make the score 28-14 and essentially seal the game. On Baltimore’s next drive Flacco was intercepted and the Browns added a field goal; when the Ravens got the ball back, they converted on one fourth down try but failed on the second to give the ball back to Cleveland and set up another Browns field goal to finish the scoring.
Perhaps the most amazing part of Cleveland’s 34 points is that the team’s offense gained only 169 yards in the game; if not for key plays by the defense and special teams, the game likely would’ve ended much differently. The disparity was particularly clear in terms of passing yards, as Baltimore gained nearly 200 more yards through the air. However, four Baltimore turnovers—two fumbles lost on punts and two interceptions—really doomed the Ravens chances of protecting their home field advantage. Of their three Red Zone opportunities, Baltimore converted only one into points; not the way to win games in the NFL.
Though neither quarterback was very successful in the rain, McCoy was able to at the very least protect the ball even though his passing performance was suspect. Hillis had a solid game on the ground, though nearly half of his 123 yard total for the game came on a single running play in the fourth quarter. Again, Ray Ventrone of the Browns took home Player of the Game honors—despite being a player few NFL fans would even be aware of—thanks to a 96-yard interception return for touchdown and a forced fumble on the improbable Cleveland drive where two punts turned into points for the Browns.
All in all, you play to win the game; that said, I wasn’t thrilled with the offense I had managed in this game by any means. However, the Browns as a team in Madden NFL 12 lack consistent playmakers, making it difficult to put together success while in possession of the ball. My 1-for-8 performance in converting third downs in the game was more than evidence of the difficulty I had finding a player to rely upon when I absolutely needed to gain yards. Despite the 20-point difference between the teams at the end of the game, this was a game that I was fortunate to come out on top of.
One entry remains in the “regularly-scheduled” portion of this week’s STAT BOX STORIES; be sure to come back tomorrow as the Buffalo Sabres take on the Ottawa Senators in NHL 12!