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Browns Browns Archive The Year This Week Didn't Suck: Week 17
Written by Jonathan Knight

Jonathan Knight

browns falcons 2002As we struggle to survive another season with the new-era Browns, one way we can try to get through it (besides alcohol or heavy medication) is to look back at the best individual weeks of the Browns’ new era to remember times in recent memory when this particular week didn’t suck.

To an outsider, the frantic hysteria which often accompanies final week of the NFL season seems utterly absurd.

Fans of contending teams obsess not only about what their team needs to do, but they also wring their sweaty hands over how the stars must align correctly elsewhere.

If you’re not hip-deep in the situation, you can’t really understand it. If you are, it becomes your whole world. Kind of like Congress or the Twilight saga.

Only twice since the Browns returned have their fans found themselves in one of these nerve-racking final-weekend situations, and in both cases, the Browns’ hopes appeared slim going in. In 2007, the odds predictably went against the Browns and they were excluded from the postseason.

But five years earlier, things unfolded a bit differently.

In addition to having to defeat the Atlanta Falcons at Cleveland Browns Stadium in the 2002 regular-season finale, the Browns needed help to make the playoffs for the first time since the reboot. They got the first piece of the puzzle Saturday afternoon when Kansas City - who’d defeated the Browns on opening day thanks to Dwayne Rudd and his amazing technicolor helmet - lost in Oakland. And even if the Browns could knock off Atlanta, they’d still need one of two other games to fall the right way.

But since the Falcons also went into the day with their playoff fate hanging in the balance, for the Browns to look ahead would be preposterous. Especially since they would have the added “burden” of playing at home - where, incredibly, they were just 2-5 on the year.

Fittingly, their schizophrenic regular season would be capped by an equally schizophrenic performance in the finale.

Looking uncharacteristically sharp at the outset, the Browns grabbed a 10-0 lead midway through the second quarter following a nifty touchdown run by rookie William Green - who’d carried the team into contention in the second half of the season - and appeared to have control of the game.

But Atlanta, led by second-year quarterback Michael Vick, gradually chipped away and, despite missing a pair of field goals, took a six-point lead into the final quarter, which the Browns would enter with a new quarterback.

Tim Couch fractured his fibula on a first-half sack and would be out for the game and - just in case the two durations weren’t identical - the rest of the season. It would be up to Kelly Holcomb - who’d started the first two games of the year and looked damn-near brilliant before suffering a leg injury of his own that sidelined him for the next month and headed off the impending quarterback controversy at the pass.

Catapulted into action for the first time in over three months, Holcomb looked rusty for much of the game, and after another quick three-and-out with just over nine minutes remaining, it looked like the Browns were running out of chances. A play later, they sprang back to life when Gerard Warren recovered a fumble at the Atlanta 11, and Holcomb cashed it in on a third-down touchdown strike to Kevin Johnson that gave the Browns back the lead at 17-16.

The defense forced a key stop and the Browns regained possession at their own 29 with just under five minutes to play looking to milk some clock and hang onto their one-point advantage. Instead, they delivered the most memorable play of the new era.

On second down from the 36, Green took a handoff, broke through a hole over right tackle, and steamed downfield. With Jim Donovan deliriously cheering him on in the radio booth - “Run, William, run!” - Green crossed the goal line to make it 24-16 with 3:53 left.

But of course, this being the Browns, it wasn’t over.

The Falcons, who by this point in the afternoon had been secured a spot in the playoffs by virtue of a New Orleans loss to Carolina, began cruising downfield. They reached the Cleveland 4, then a three-yard first-down run by Warrick Dunn put them at the 1 with the clock ticking down under a minute. 

A touchdown and a two-point conversion and the game would head for overtime. But Atlanta coach Dan Reeves, knowing his team was headed for the postseason, played it safe, opting for a Dunn handoff and a pocket pass from Vick that fell incomplete on third down. Then on fourth, rather than running or rolling out the elusive Vick and risking injury, Reeves green-lit another safe Dunn carry, this one stuffed at the line of scrimmage by a wall of defenders led by Browns’ linebacker Dwayne Rudd - who you’ll recall began this crazy-ass season by pissing away a victory on opening day that at this point still could wind up costing them a playoff berth.

Holcomb kneeled out the final seconds and the Browns had wrapped up the victory and their first winning record in eight years. But it did not deliver a playoff berth - the Browns still needed one more break.

A few minutes later it appeared they’d get it, but Miami blew a comfortable lead to lose in New England in overtime. The Browns’ final hope depended on the 8-7 New York Jets in the 4 o’clock game, who would have to defeat the 12-3 Green Bay Packers, who themselves needed a win to get a first-round bye in the NFC.

Surprising everyone, the Jets rolled to a 42-17 triumph, and shamalamadingdong! The Browns were in the playoffs for the one and only time in their new era.

Their victory in the Atlanta game stands out for many fans as the best and most meaningful the Browns have played since their return, hence its inclusion in the NFL Films “Browns Greatest Games” DVD set released in 2007. (And, bizarrely, the game is also offered as a bonus feature on the fourth season of Sex in the City.) And deservedly so. Led by William Green’s career-best 178 yards and two scores, the Browns stood up when they needed to and delivered a rousing victory in the finale to a beleaguered fan base.

For the first and only time during Browns 2.0, we were part of the insanity and reveled in its final outcome.

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