CLEVELAND – On the final play of this frenetic, fantastic game, Cleveland Browns quarterback Derek Anderson took a knee and then cradled the ball, like he thought Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer might try to take it back and score again and again and again. But the game was over, and this wasn't a dream, no matter how improbable Cleveland's outrageous 51-45 victory Sunday over Cincinnati seemed.
Referee Pete Morelli asked for the ball. Anderson shook his head. "I'm keeping this one," he said. The zebra understood.
"Go ahead," Morelli said before shaking Anderson's hand. "You played good today."
Yes, Anderson played "good." At least if good means taking Cleveland, a team that scored seven points last week, to its most points since returning to the NFL in 1999.
Or if good is going 20-for-33 for 328 yards and five touchdowns. Let alone if good is dealing with the pressure of taking over for a guy who was the fastest fired quarterback in NFL history while having the golden boy first-round draft pick breathing down your neck.
Or we could define "good" this way: Palmer threw for merely 401 yards and six touchdown passes. And he lost.
"I don't think anybody expected this game to shake out like this," Palmer said.
So that's how good – as in, oh my goodness – Anderson and this out-of-nowhere Browns offensive explosion was.
Considering Anderson entered the season with five touchdown passes for his career, there wasn't any way even he could have dreamed of five in a game, right?
"I wouldn't say so," he smiled.
Did anyone see this coming?
"Not really," Browns coach Romeo Crennel said.
Of course, this was a game that suspended belief throughout, from the whiplash-inducing back-and-forth action, to the exhausted scorekeeper, to the litany of eye-popping stat totals, starting with 96 points, 1,085 yards and only five punts.
Palmer and Anderson became the first pair of quarterbacks to throw for at least five touchdowns in the same game since 1969. They tied a mark set in 1963 by Tom Flores and George Blanda; it's probably the first time Anderson and Blanda have had anything in common.
Then there was running back Jamal Lewis, who rattled off 216 yards rushing, including a 66-yard touchdown sprint that stunned everyone who thought he no longer had any speed.
"I was surprised," Lewis admitted. "It just picked up as I went."
Surprised doesn't begin to describe it. How the heck does an offense that couldn't get out of its own way last week suddenly turn into something out of the old Western Athletic Conference? And these are the Browns, right? The terrible, horrible, average-five-wins-a-season Browns?
"It's nice to have a runner run for 200 yards. Lately that's been happening against us," Crennel noted.
The story here was Anderson, the soft-spoken yet intensely confident third-year nobody out of Nowheresville, Ore. (actually, the town of Scappoose), who due to a series of calamitous front office decisions assumed the starting position for what everyone expected to be a half or so.
The Browns' quarterback situation has been the most dysfunctional in the NFL this season. It started with a training camp battle between Charlie Frye and Anderson that was so uninspired that Crennel said he'd pick the starter for the preseason opener by flipping a coin. The undisputed heir apparent, first-round pick Brady Quinn, held out for 11 days, so despite being the fan favorite and most impressive thrower, he had no shot to start in Week 1.
Anderson didn't either, though. He lost the job to Frye before Frye stunk, got the hook after a quarter and a half and was promptly traded to Seattle, a record quick dumping according to Elias Sports Bureau. Because Anderson went 13-of-22 for 184 yards, one touchdown and one pick in mop-up duty in a 31-7 humiliation at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers, there was little hope this week.
After he started the game 0-for-5, the fans were rumbling for Quinn to take over.
So Anderson started cracking jokes in the huddle ("He had us laughing," said wide receiver Braylon Edwards) and somehow, some way, after those five consecutive incompletions, he promptly led five consecutive scoring drives en route to hanging more than half a hundred on the Bengals.
"That's just how I go," Anderson said. "I said, 'Hey, I'm just going to take what they give me.' "
What the Bengals gave them was everything. There were no effective pass rushes, huge lanes for Lewis to run through and so many blown assignments that Anderson was able to float some in there. In a prime example, Anderson overthrew a completely uncovered Edwards, who saved the day by making a leaping open-field grab and rolled into the end zone.
It was little wonder Palmer, after a career day, looked shell-shocked. "I'm just going to try to get some sleep," he said.
Of course, to the victors go the laughs.
"That was one of the funnest games I've ever played in," the new hottest quarterback in the NFL said.
After the coin flips and roster cuts, after the drama and pressure, after the trading of Frye and the chanting for Quinn, after 51 points, five TDs and George Blanda, just like that ref, who could argue with Derek Anderson?