It's one thing for the Cleveland Browns to lose to the Denver Broncos; the AFC West champions who were on a nine-game win streak prior to Sunday's game. But it was another thing altogether for it to happen while the Browns suffered serious injuries to their two most important offensive players at the same time.
In the 34-12 loss, quarterback Brandon Weeden left the game with a shoulder injury early in the second half, and then running back Trent Richardson injured his ankle—which was feared to be broken but apparently is not—with just 30 seconds left in the game, his team down by 22 points.
Though neither Weeden nor Richardson were particularly effective in the contest, that doesn't matter. The last thing the Browns need, even at this late in the season, is to deal with these two major offensive injuries. Depending on their severity, the effects could reverberate well into next season, one likely filled with a number of changes to both their coaching staff and personnel.
Prior to his shoulder injury, Weeden completed 12 of his 19 pass attempts for 104 yards.
The best that could be said is that he didn't turn the ball over and was well protected in the first half, taking no sacks. He was replaced by Colt McCoy, who fared no better, going 9-of-17 for 79 yards and a six-yard touchdown pass to Greg Little when the Browns were down 25 points in the fourth quarter.
That streak of protection broke down in the second half of the game, with Weeden and then McCoy being sacked a total of six times.
Cleveland's defense didn't manage to get to Denver's Peyton Manning once.
With pressure nearly non-existent and Cleveland's coverage no match for Denver's receivers, Manning was able to do as he pleased, completing 30 of his 43 pass attempts for 339 yards, three touchdowns and a lone interception, notched by Usama Young, at the end of the first half.
Demaryius Thomas was Denver's receiving leader, with 102 yards and a score on nine catches, while Eric Decker was the most reliable, catching all six balls thrown his way for 65 yards and two touchdowns.
Denver's running game was also sharp, putting up 118 total yards on 32 rushes, with Knowshon Moreno leading the way with 22 carries for 78 yards; it also produced a rushing touchdown, a one-yarder by Jacob Hester in the fourth quarter.
The Broncos had a touchdown in every quarter on Sunday, as well as two fourth-quarter field goals.
Cleveland mustered two field goals and a touchdown (with a failed two-point conversion attempt).
Though Richardson was running well—he had nine total carries for 53 yards, an average of 5.9 yards-per-carry—the massive points deficit forced the Browns to turn away from the run, with just 18 rushes in the game compared to 36 total passes.
The outcome was no surprise.
It was a tall order to ask Cleveland to either keep Manning and the Denver offense under control or match its production. What hurts the Browns more than the loss itself are Weeden's and Richardson's injuries. It affects their chances to complete a sweep of the Pittsburgh Steelers next Sunday and reignites their quarterback controversy. It also puts Richardson's status as a reliable, featured back in question. This is his third injury since the summer, when he first underwent knee surgery and then later hurt his ribs.
While leaving Denver with a win would have been a best-case scenario, this loss goes from a fairly expected disappointment to a potentially franchise-altering moment. With changes looming for the Browns, hopefully Weeden's shoulder and Richardson's ankle don't force them into making future decisions more difficult.