NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Browns were just a kick away.
Well, maybe a few kicks, not to mention a defensive penalty that revived a New Orleans touchdown drive, as well as an interception that set up another Saints score in the waning minutes.
Even with all those critical, untimely mistakes, Cleveland could have forced overtime if Zane Gonzalez had managed to compartmentalize an earlier missed field goal — and two missed extra points — when he lined up for a 52-yard try in the final seconds.
Gonzalez pushed it wide, and the Browns fell 21-18 in New Orleans to extend their winless streak to 19 games.
Yet the performance also demonstrated how close Cleveland is to breaking back into the win column.
“Our players, as I told them afterward, ‘There is a good team in that (locker) room,’” Browns coach Hue Jackson said. “There is no doubt in my mind about that.
“We’ve just got to make sure we are doing the right things all of the time to give us a chance.”
The Browns head into Week 3 with one loss and one tie, but with reasons for optimism. They are just a few plays away from being 2-0. In Week 1, they set up for a winning field goal in overtime against Pittsburgh , only to have it blocked.
The Saints (1-1), meanwhile, are evidently unsatisfied with how their season has begun. Their defense struggled in a 48-40 Week 1 loss to Tampa Bay. In Week 2, the offense managed only a field goal through three quarters and change against Cleveland before rallying for 18 points inside the final nine minutes. If not for safety Marcus Williams’ interception of Tyrod Taylor with just less than five minutes to go, the Saints might have become the first team to lose to the Browns since Dec. 24, 2016.
“I’m encouraged we won, but let’s not kid ourselves,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We have a lot to do to improve.”
Some story lines emerging from New Orleans’ narrow triumph over Cleveland:
Gregg Williams, a the Saints defensive coordinator from 2009-11, was caught on the HBO series Hard Knocks boasting that he turned down numerous jobs to take over as defensive coordinator in Cleveland. Now everyone can see why.
Drew Brees and the Saints had their hands full with a Browns defense that forced two turnovers — fumbled by receivers Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. — and came up with three drive-stalling sacks. Tackle Larry Ogunjobi sacked Brees twice, blitzing cornerback T.J. Carrie got to Brees on another third down, and Ogunjobi would have had another in the fourth quarter if not for Derrick Kindred’s illegal contact penalty.
“He did a good job,” Payton said of Williams. “They always give you challenging looks. … They have some good young players that played well.”
Through Week 2, it’s apparent that the Saints are relying heavily on Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara to carry the load.
Thomas had 12 catches for 89 yards and both Saints touchdowns, giving him 28 catches for 269 yards and three TDs through two games.
“With a player of my caliber and the guy behind center and the offensive line and all the tools around me, I’m going to catch a lot of footballs. I’m going to get open. I’ve been doing that my whole life,” Thomas said. “So now what can I do to add value to this team and take the next step?”
Kamara had 99 yards from scrimmage, including 53 receiving on six catches to go with his successful run on a 2-point conversion. Kamara now has 240 yards from scrimmage and three TDs.
A day after the Browns announced they were formally giving up on deep-threat receiver Josh Gordon, rookie Antonio Calloway offered evidence he could grow into a similar type of play maker, racing past the Saints’ secondary for a 47-yard touchdown catch from Taylor on a fourth-and-5 play with 1:16 to go. It could have been a go-ahead score, but Gonzalez hooked the extra point wide left.
“Those are plays we truly believe he can make,” Jackson said.
Perhaps third-string QB is the wrong title for New Orleans’ Taysom Hill. He became a regular on special teams late last season on kick coverage. Against Cleveland, he debuted as kickoff returner — and there’s every reason to believe he’ll get another shot. After Cleveland’s first three kickoffs went for touchbacks, Hill decided to return the fourth from 7 yards deep in the end zone. He burst through a seam and sprinted out of the Saints 40 before being tripped up.
“It was a good return,” Payton said. “He’s explosive.”