CLEVELAND (AP) — On a freezing day for football, the Browns’ most jarring chill came at the end.
Unable to deliver the big play in the clutch, quarterback Deshaun Watson’s second home game ended with him being sacked, perhaps a fitting conclusion for a Cleveland season grounded from the start.
Watson threw three incompletions in the final minute — tight end David Njoku dropped a possible tying TD with 30 seconds left — before being thrown for a loss on Cleveland’s last play as the Browns lost 17-10 on Saturday to the New Orleans Saints.
Unable to stop the Saints’ running game, the Browns (6-9) blew a 10-0 lead and were eliminated from the playoffs by a New Orleans team that finally won an outdoor game in its seventh try.
Cleveland’s postseason chances were remote before kickoff of the coldest regular-season game in franchise history.
Now, they don’t exist.
“Very disappointing” said star defensive end Myles Garrett. “It’s not where we want to be. It’s not where we expected to be at the beginning of the season.”
Watson, who attempted 31 passes on a day when standing up was difficult enough in gusting winds, fell to 2-2 since he returned from an 11-game suspension for sexual misconduct allegations.
It’s not what he or Cleveland had in mind when the Browns signed the quarterback to a fully-guaranteed $230 million contract in March. But little has gone as planned for the Browns, who didn’t live up to expectations despite a talented roster.
“It’s a momentum game,” said safety John Johnson III. “We didn’t complement each other well enough this season, and it shows you what happens at the end of it.”
Watson’s 12-yard TD run in the second quarter and Cade York’s 30-yard field goal put the Browns ahead 10-0. But the Saints, who were 0-6 outside the Superdome, got a 23-yard field goal from Wil Lutz on the last play before halftime and then outscored Cleveland 14-0 in the second half.
Still, the Browns had a chance to pull it out and Watson drove them to New Orleans’ 15-yard line with 43 seconds left.
On second down, Watson’s throw to the back left corner of the end zone went off the hands of wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, who had extended and was on his tip toes while trying to haul it in.
Watson then rifled a pass over the middle on third down to Njoku. But the tight end couldn’t handle it and had the ball bounce off his shoulder just short of the goal line. It was a rare drop for Njoku, who had made a sensational, one-handed TD grab in the same end zone earlier this season.
Njoku refused to blame the elements.
“I dropped that ball” he said. “I feel like I let the team down myself, personally. I’ve got to own up to that and I am. That’s what happened. We’ve got to get better. Myself, I’ve got to get better.”
Njoku apologized to Watson, who appreciated his teammate’s gesture.
“He came by the locker. It was just a missed opportunity, but stuff like that happens,” Watson said. “Next time, we will be sure to capitalize on it. You have respect for Dave and everything he brings to this team and this organization.
“That just shows how much he really cares about it, too. We will just continue to grow from it and learn from these missed opportunities to take advantage of it.”
The Browns are guaranteed to finish with a losing record in coach Kevin Stefanski’s third season. While it appears his job is safe considering the circumstances caused by Watson’s suspension, there are bound to be changes for a team that has underperformed.
Watson said it’s vital for the Browns to finish strong in upcoming games against Washington and Pittsburgh.
“We have to give everything that we have,” he said. “We can’t just go out there and lollygag. These are two opportunities for not just us as individuals but as a team and as this organization to try to get a boost for next year.
“We have to go in like we have something to prove.”