Browns 24, Falcons 16
Rudd’s celebration was just right. Another unforgettable image in a strange and improbable season for the Browns, who will play at least one more game.
In Pittsburgh. In the playoffs.
Rookie William Green ran for 178 yards—64 coming on a TD with 3:53 left— before the Browns stopped Atlanta four times near the goal line in a 24-16 victory Sunday.
But even after yet another dramatic win, the thrill-a-minute Browns (9-7) had to sweat out two other games before securing a wild-card berth in the AFC playoffs.
Only after the New York Jets beat Green Bay nearly three hours later did the Browns finally have their first postseason appearance since 1994.
“I think it just goes to show how we never gave up,” wide receiver Kevin Johnson said. “You look at the obstacles we had, losing a game with the helmet throw, losing close games. We kept fighting and we came through when it counted most.”
It took four years for the Browns to go from expansion to the playoffs.
Along the way, the team endured 2-14 and 3-13 seasons, a head coaching change, major injuries, owner Al Lerner’s death and more spine-chilling finishes than any team in the league.
For the Browns, nothing is ever easy.
“I’m convinced we earned this playoff berth because our players never quit fighting,” second-year coach Butch Davis said. “A playoff berth validates that we are progressing as a football team.”
The Falcons, too, are a playoff team although there were long stretches on Sunday where they didn’t look like one.
Atlanta (9-6-1) backed in as one of the six NFC playoff teams as a wild card when New Orleans lost at home to Carolina. The Falcons last appeared in the postseason in 1998, when they went to the Super Bowl.
“I’m really, really, really down,” Atlanta tight end Alge Crumpler said. “Maybe a lot of guys are. I feel like we backed into these playoffs.”
Down by eight after Green’s second TD run, the Falcons nearly pulled off another comeback.
On second down, Vick threw an incompletion into the back of the end zone.
Rudd then submarined Dunn just short of a TD on third down.
On fourth down, Holmes tackled the Atlanta running back inches from a score that would have brought the Falcons within a 2-point conversion of tying it.
A season of last-minute drives and last-second passes now had a last stand for the Browns.
“I don’t think in a game of this magnitude that I’ve ever been around a goal-line stand like that,” Davis said. “That was an unbelievable statement about the will and the courage of the guys that were playing.”
The Browns won their biggest game since their rebirth in ’99 without quarterback Tim Couch, who broke his right leg in the first half, and won another gut-wrenching game despite committing four turnovers.
“This game was a microcosm of the whole season,” Davis said. “What can you say?”
When the final seconds ticked off, the Browns—led by Rudd, whose impulsive helmet toss in Week 1 cost Cleveland a win—ran to midfield and danced with some teammates as 73,528 sweaty-palmed fans rocked Browns Stadium.
Cleveland will play the archrival Steelers in the first round next Sunday. The last time the Browns were in the playoffs in 1994 was also against Pittsburgh.
Couch, a target of fan abuse in Cleveland all season because of his inconsistency, broke the fibula in his right leg on the first play of the second quarter and will have to watch next weekend’s game from the sideline.
“This is what I’ve worked so hard for my whole life and to get hurt is frustrating, but there is nothing I can do about it,” he said. “I’ going to be the biggest cheerleader we have.”
Green’s 178 yards were the most by a Browns running back since Dec. 16, 1984, when Earnest Byner got 188 against the Houston Oilers. … Feely’s 32 field goals broke Morten Andersen’s single-season club record of 31, set in 1995. … Reeves is 10-3 in his career vs. Cleveland. … Browns WR Quincy Morgan had a rough day. He was called for three penalties and fumbled once. “Iwant to redeem myself in the playoffs.”