CLEVELAND (AP)—As their turnaround season ended inside a dome hundreds of miles away, the Cleveland Browns could only watch—and wonder.
Despite 10 wins, the Browns, who won just four games last season, were left out of the AFC playoffs after the Tennessee Titans won 16-10 in Indianapolis on Sunday night to clinch the final wild-card spot and set up a first-round game in San Diego.
The Browns were left California dreaming.
Sure, they’ll spend the winter reflecting on a season few thought possible. But the Browns, who beat the San Francisco 49ers 20-7 in their home finale, will also consider what might have been if they hadn’t thrown away a game in Cincinnati last week, a loss that cost them a postseason berth.
“We are disappointed that we didn’t reach the playoffs, however, we had a good year,” coach Romeo Crennel said. “We’ve learned a lot, grown a lot and look forward to continuing to build on what we’ve accomplished this season.”
That may be true, but it’s little consolation right now as the Browns (10-6) will be the only NFL team with double-digit wins not in the playoffs.
The Browns took the field at 12:58 p.m. not knowing if it would be for the last time this season. At 11:11, they were officially done as the Titans won the third tiebreaker—a better record against common opponents—to get in.
It looked as if it was going to Cleveland’s night, too.
In order, the Titans lost a fumble, the lead and quarterback Vince Young to an injury in the third quarter at the RCA Dome. But veteran Kerry Collins came in for Young and calmly rallied Tennessee back to the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
The Browns have plenty to build on but can’t take the next step in their development until next season.
“We could have closed the door last week,” wide receiver Braylon Edwards said. “We had that chance but we forfeited it by losing to a lesser team.”
Before settling in to watch the Titans and Colts, Joshua Cribbs returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown, Jamal Lewis rushed for 128 yards and rookie quarterback Brady Quinn made his long-awaited debut as the Browns beat the 49ers for their seventh straight win at home.
Afterward, Cleveland’s players showered, dressed, went to dinner and then toward their TV sets to cheer on the Colts.
It was a fitting conclusion for these down-to-the-very-last tick Browns, whose unexpected rise in Crennel’s third season included several games won—and lost—in the final seconds.
Kicker Phil Dawson, the lone player left from Cleveland’s 1999 expansion team, watched the Tennessee-Indianapolis game with his two sons, both dressed in Colts jerseys. He has seen it all: good, bad and mostly ugly in eight seasons with the Browns.
But before the Titans and Colts kicked off, Dawson was feeling good about Cleveland’s chances.
“It’s only fitting that it comes down to the last game and we have to wait,” he said. “I’m staying positive.”
Earlier, Derek Anderson threw a 45-yard TD pass to Braylon Edwards and Dawson kicked two field goals as the Browns finished 7-1 at home for the first time in club history.
Cleveland’s 10 wins are the most since its expansion rebirth. The Browns last posted double-digit wins in 1994 (11).
Still, the playoffs must wait.
“Even if we don’t get in, this is a stepping stone,” tight end Kellen Winslow said, “because we’ve come up from the bottom.”
While they had to stay up late to learn Cleveland’s playoff fate, one wait ended early on Sunday for Browns fans. They finally got to see Quinn, who came in late in the first half when Anderson left with an injured pinky.
Anderson began the season as a backup and finished as a Pro Bowl alternate. His emergence kept Quinn, the Browns’ first-round draft pick, on the bench all season.
Anderson returned after halftime and finished 11-of-20 for 152 yards, but threw an interception and was again shaky coming off a four-pick performance last week in a loss at Cincinnati that cost Cleveland a chance to clinch a wild-card spot.
Quinn was 3-of-8 for 45 yards in his one series, but had a sure TD pass dropped by Winslow in the end zone.
“It felt good,” Quinn said. “That’s something I’ve been waiting for. It’s tough coming off the bench like that and getting loose. A couple of those passes, my feet felt like they were in cement.”
Winslow took blame for the drop.
“I am human—sometimes,” said Winslow, who finished with 1,106 yards.
It was final game for San Francisco defensive end Bryant Young, who will retire after 14 seasons.
“I’m done,” the four-time Pro Bowler said. “It’s sad it had to end the way it did. It’s been a blessing to play as long as I did, to play in a Super Bowl and to be able to come back from my injury. It’s been a nice ride.”
San Francisco coach Mike Nolan faces an uncertain future and plans to meet with owner John York and his wife, Denise, in the next few day.
“I do have a contract,” said Nolan, who is 16-32 in three seasons. “The speculation is what it is.”
Cribbs returned San Francisco’s first punt 53 yards, then took the next one back all the way. It was the first career TD punt return for Cribbs, who ran two kickoffs back for TDs this season. Later, he had a 94-yard kickoff return called back because of holding.
“That guy is not human,” Winslow said. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen at returning anything. I would not kick it to him.” ^Notes: Dawson set a club record for points by a kicker with 120—6 shy of tying Hall of Famer Jim Brown’s overall team mark. … 49ers rookie CB Tarell Brown suffered a right knee injury and left the stadium on crutches. … Lewis, who signed a one-year contract with Cleveland in March, became the 26th back to surpass 9,000 career yards. He expects to be back with the Browns next season.