CLEVELAND — The Bears held a 17-7 lead entering the fourth quarter Sunday in Cleveland, but the Browns scored 13 unanswered points to rally for a 20-17 victory.
A stifling performance by the defense enabled the Bears to take a 17-7 lead into the final period. But the Browns scored the final 13 points, capped by Dustin Hopkins' game-winning 34-yard field goal that snapped a 17-17 tie with :32 remaining.
"At the end of the day, the Cleveland Browns made more plays down at the end than we did," said coach Matt Eberflus. "Our guys made a lot of them today, but that's what happened at the very end … The guys will have their eyes forward. But it stings and it's going to sting. Having this loss is always hard."
The Bears nearly pulled off a miracle on the game's final play as Justin Fields' Hail Mary pass from the Cleveland 45 was deflected and nearly caught by Darnell Mooney in the end zone. As Mooney fell back to the ground, the ball hit him in the chest but bounded away and into the hands of safety D'Anthony Bell for an interception.
"I tried to tip it, then hold onto it," Mooney said. "It hit my chest. I was already falling. It was tough. It would have been crazy. I wish I could have had it."
The Bears defense generated three interceptions—with Tremaine Edmunds returning one for a touchdown—and four sacks, including 2.5 by Montez Sweat. The unit limited the Browns to 162 yards through the first three quarters but permitted 215 yards in the fourth period.
After Hopkins' 33-yard field goal cut the deficit to 17-10 early in the final quarter, the Browns tied it 17-17 on Joe Flacco's 51-yard touchdown pass to receiver Amari Cooper with 3:08 to play. Cooper caught the ball between two defenders and then turned up field and raced down the right sideline to the end zone.
"We were playing a zone on that one and, to be honest with you, that play should have been picked," Eberflus said. "We've got to do a good job of breaking on that, envisioning on that—the ball's in the air long enough—or at least deflect it. We'll improve our technique and fundamentals on that one and we'll get after it next time."
The Bears offense mustered just 236 yards and 12 first downs while converting 4-of-22 third-down opportunities (22.2%) and 0-of-2 fourth-down chances.
Fields completed 19 of 40 passes for 166 yards with one touchdown and a 46.5 passer rating that would have been higher had he not been intercepted on Hail Mary passes at the end of both halves. The Bears' running game was held to 88 yards on 27 carries.
"The defense played a hell of a game," Fields said. "I'm not sure they could have played any better for us as a team. I've got to play better as the quarterback of this team, and I think we've all got to be better on offense. They have a great D-line, great rush, so I know the guys up front wish they would have had a few plays back, receivers wish they would have had a few plays back. We've just got to be better. I've got to be better."
Hopkins' winning field goal was set up by Flacco's 34-yard pass to tight end David Njoku on third-and-15 from the Cleveland 47 with :46 to play. Flacco beat a blitz and lofted a short pass to Njoku, who broke a Tyrique Stevenson tackle and raced down the left sideline before being shoved out of bounds at the Bears' 19.
With the loss, the Bears fell to 5-9. It was the third time this season they've dropped a game that they led by double digits in the fourth quarter.
"It comes down to the fundamentals," Eberflus said. "When you watch the tape and look at it, it'll be about that, and it'll be about playmaking. We've got to make the plays down the stretch. That's what it's always going to be about.
"We finished last week (in a 28-13 win over the Lions). We had good fundamentals and we finished down the stretch. We had sacks, we had interceptions, we drove the ball, we did a good job in all areas, finished the game out the right way. The NFL's always going to be that. You've got to play to the last second."
The defenses dominated early in the game, as both teams punted on their first four possessions while picking up only one first down apiece.
The game's first turnover came early in the second quarter when Eddie Jackson intercepted a Flacco pass and returned it 27 yards to the Browns' 1. Flacco was pressured by Justin Jones up the middle on the play.
The Bears turned the takeaway into a 7-0 lead as Fields escaped from Myles Garrett's grasp, rolled to his left and rifled a 5-yard touchdown pass to Cole Kmet.
The touchdown came after Kmet had been flagged for a false start, pushing the ball back to the 5. The Browns were called for three penalties from the 4, 2 and 1: two for having 12 men on the field and one for pass interference on cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. while defending DJ Moore in the end zone.
The Browns answered with a 12-play, 84-yard drive that was capped by Flacco's 2-yard touchdown pass to Njoku in the back of the end zone. Njoku made the catch despite tight coverage by Jaquan Brisker.
"The one touchdown they had, we missed some opportunities on defense," Eberflus said. "My hat's off to them; certainly, to score a touchdown, you've got to make some plays. But we had some opportunities there to make a couple interceptions."
The Bears took over at their own 2 with :59 left in the half and marched to the Browns' 37. But Fields' Hail Mary pass was intercepted in the end zone by linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the end zone as time expired.
The Bears opened the second half with a three-and-out. But on the Browns' first play from scrimmage, Edwards and Edmunds teamed up to produce a defensive score. Edwards drilled receiver Cedric Tillman just as Flacco's pass arrived and the ball squirted into the air to Edmunds, who picked it off and returned it 45 yards for his first career touchdown, giving the Bears a 14-7 lead.
After the defense forced another three-and-out, Cairo Santos' 41-yard field goal gave the Bears a two-score lead at 17-7 with 7:07 left in the third quarter. Key plays on the drive included Velus Jones Jr.'s 15-yard run and Fields' 16-yard pass to Tyler Scott.
Trent Taylor muffed a punt and the Browns recovered at the Bears' 20. But on Cleveland's first play, Stevenson made a sensational diving interception at the 1, scrambled to his feet and returned the pick 34 yards.
However, in the fourth quarter, the Bears were unable to sustain drives on offense or get off the field on defense, enabling the Browns to rally.
It's just frustrating," said Jackson said. "We've just got to finish, all around, everybody. We've just got to finish, and we didn't finish."