NEW ORLEANS -- The Browns lost again Sunday.
It wasn’t nearly that simple.
The defense got two more takeaways and held Drew Brees and the high-powered Saints offense to a field goal over the first 51 minutes, with the help of a ball-control game plan. Rookie receiver Antonio Callaway, stepping in for the soon-to-be-gone Josh Gordon, accelerated to pull down a 47-yard touchdown with 1:16 left. Tyrod Taylor recovered from a critical fourth-quarter interception to play his best in the final 2½ minutes.
But when the Browns boarded the plane and headed north, the baggage included the 22nd straight road defeat. Kicker Zane Gonzalez carried a backpack of regret.
He missed two field goals and two extra points -- one each in the final 76 seconds -- and the Saints rallied to win 21-18 inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Browns haven’t won since Dec. 24, 2016, a stretch of 19 games.
“I had more than enough opportunities,” Gonzalez said. “Let the team down, let the city down and it’s on me. I take full responsibility for it.”
Coach Hue Jackson said it was too early to say if the Browns would change kickers. They would have to make a quick decision with the Jets visiting the lakefront Thursday night.
Jackson fell to 1-32-1 with the Browns but could easily be 2-0 this year. Instead, they tied the Steelers and wasted a prime opportunity against the Saints.
“There is a good team in that (locker) room. There is no doubt in my mind about that,” Jackson said. “We’ve just got to make sure that we are doing the right things all of the time to give us a chance to win.”
“It’s definitely tough, especially when you know you’re better than both the teams you just played, who everyone else thinks are good football teams,” safety Jabrill Peppers said.
The game was going just about how Jackson, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and offensive coordinator Todd Haley had hoped until Gonzalez missed a 44-yard field goal wide left with 14:21 left, keeping the score at 12-3.
That’s when the emotional roller coaster really got rumbling.
Brees led a nine-play drive, finishing it with a 2-yard touchdown to receiver Michael Thomas. Taylor threw late over the middle and was intercepted by the safety he didn’t see, Marcus Williams, who returned it 22 yards to the 18. Thomas beat rookie No. 4 pick Denzel Ward on a fade for a 5-yard touchdown, the 2-point conversion was good and the Saints led for the first time, 18-12.
Taylor bounced back from the interception, just like he rebounded from the 15-for-40 in the opener, and led what should’ve been a go-ahead drive. He went for it all on fourth-and-5 from the 47 and hit Callaway in the end zone.
But Gonzalez missed the extra point -- his third straight kick wide left -- and the game was tied at 18.
“Our players are not going to quit,” Jackson said. “Our guys have the grit and toughness, what we have to do is find a way to win.”
Brees connected with receiver Ted Ginn Jr. for 8 and 42 yards and the Saints were in field goal range. Wil Lutz, who missed earlier from the same distance, nailed the 44-yarder with 21 seconds left.
The Browns weren’t done.
Taylor threw to receiver Jarvis Landry (five catches, 69 yards) over the middle for 25 yards to midfield, and the Browns used their last timeout. Taylor hit Callaway (three catches, 81 yards, a touchdown) for 16 yards on the sideline with eight seconds left.
“He came back. He put us in position twice to try to win. That’s all you can ask in those situations,” left guard Joel Bitonio said of Taylor. “He fought his a-- off.”
Gonzalez overcompensated and pushed the 52-yard try wide right. It would’ve tied the game and forced overtime.
The Browns showed resolve after the Saturday announcement by general manager John Dorsey that he would release Gordon on Monday. They just couldn’t finish the job.
“I don’t think it had any impact in regard to this game,” Taylor said of the Gordon situation. “Away from this game, of course, you lose a brother, you lose a teammate. I hope everything works out for him in the long run. Obviously, things haven’t worked out well for him, but I’m going to keep praying for him and hope that he gets on the right track.”
Taylor was much more accurate than in the opener and again made some key throws late. With much better protection, he went 22-for-30 for 246 yards, a touchdown, an interception, three sacks and a 94.6 rating.
The game plan to control the clock was always a good idea, even more so with the loss of Gordon, perhaps the offense’s most talented player. The Browns held the ball for 32:41 and had six drives of at least six plays.
“I just think the plans were good, the execution in some areas in all three phases needs to be better,” Jackson said.
The defense contributed with two more takeaways in the first half -- forced fumbles by cornerback Terrance Mitchell -- giving them eight in two games. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi took advantage of the extra attention paid to end Myles Garrett and had two sacks of Brees, giving him three for the season. Ogunjobi had a third Sunday erased by an illegal contact penalty on safety Derrick Kindred downfield.
“Playing their tails off. I’m proud of them,” Jackson said of the defense.
Brees finished 28-for-35 for 243 yards, two touchdowns, three sacks and a 114.6 rating. Thomas had 12 catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns and set an NFL record with 28 catches in the first two games. Dual-threat running back Alvin Kamara had 99 yards on 19 touches.
“That’s one of the best offenses in the league. You can only hold teams for so long,” said free safety Damarious Randall, who recovered a fumble. “Obviously, the world knows how good this defense is now. To come in the Superdome and to hold this team to 21 points, I don’t think that many people have done that, and not just hold them to 21, it was stifling the whole entire night for Brees.”
The Browns still lost.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like him on Facebook and follow him @scottpetrak on Twitter.
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