DENVER - A 4-10 record hasn't helped Butch Davis get used to losing.
The face of the Cleveland Browns coach was flushed. His voice cracked as he spoke quietly, trying to fight back tears during his postgame interview in the bowels of Invesco Field at Mile High Sunday night..
As painful as 2003 has been for Davis and the Browns, blowing a 3-point lead with just over a minute to go in regulation, then losing 23-20 in overtime to the Denver Broncos was a crushing blow.
"It hurts," Davis said. "This makes me sick for those kids. They deserve a win. People in this organization are straining like you have no idea to try to win a ballgame, and to see them go out there and fight as hard as they did and come up short, it hurts. I don't like a bit of it."
With the stream of injuries that forced Davis to scramble together a makeshift lineup to face a Denver club battling for a spot in the playoffs, nobody gave the Browns much of a chance to even be competitive. Yet with 1:11 on the fourth-quarter clock, a 48-yard field goal by one of the Browns injury replacements, the recently-signed Brett Conway, Davis' club owned a 20-17 lead.
And with the Broncos beginning their final drive at their own 25-yard line with just 1:04 remaining and no timeouts, Davis had to admit, "we felt pretty good."
That good feeling ended with just inside 30 seconds to play as Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer stepped up in the pocket and lofted a 36-yard pass to Ashley Lelie, who out-fought Browns rookie Michael Lehan for the ball at the 17-yard line. Two plays later, Jason Elam kicked a 36-yard field goal with 11 seconds to play, sending the game to overtime.
Elam later kicked a 25-yard chip shot in the extra session to give the Broncos (9-5) the win.
"It's always nice to find a way to win when you don't play you're A-game," said Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. "Hand it to Cleveland. They came in here ready to play, and made some big plays. We had to step up and make some big plays at the end of the game."
No play was bigger than Lelie's catch over Lehan, who tripped when his feet were tangled with Lelie near the 20-yard line. Covering Lelie all alone with the game on the line was a tough position for a rookie cornerback pressed into a starting job due to injuries to veterans Daylon McCutcheon and Anthony Henry.
"It's a lonely feeling, but it's one of those things where you look back and I'm sure there are a lot of great cornerbacks who can remember a not-too fine time for them, too," said Lehan. "I'm not going to say I wish I would have done this or that, but there was a play to be made and Ashley made the play."
Browns free safety Earl Little said he wished he had been able to give Lehan help on the play, rather than leave the youngster alone on an island, but in the "quarters" zone called for the secondary, he was forced to cover Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith on a deep pattern down the middle of the field.
"I wasn't able to help young Michael over the top, but we have to play what the coaches call," said Little. "If (Smith) comes 10 or 15 yards down the field, I have to honor him and take him, and that leaves the other guy man-to-man, all by himself."
The Broncos comeback spoiled another hard-fought effort by the Browns defense and quarterback Tim Couch.
Despite being on the field for exactly 24 (44:35 to 20:35) minutes more than the Browns offense and enduring 79 plays compared with the 49 run by the Browns offense, the exhausted Browns defense surrendered only two Clinton Portis touchdown runs and two Elam field goals in regulation.
Portis, who ran for 139 yards on 38 carries, rolled in from 1-yard out to cap the Broncos opening possession with 10:06 remaining in the first quarter. He then gave the Broncos a 17-10 lead with 10:43 to play in the fourth on a 13-yard dash to the end zone.
Couch kept the Browns coming back, despite a conservative gameplan that allowed him to put the ball in the air just 18 times.
"We felt like we had to try to run the football," said Davis. "Probably the biggest pass plays in the ball game came off of play-action, and then Tim did a nice job. He threw the deep ball about as well as he has."
Couch completed eight of his 18 passes for 181 yards. He was intercepted once on a deep throw for Northcutt in the fourth quarter, but two other throws went for touchdowns that deadlocked the game.
On the final play of the first half, Couch fired a fourth-down pass to tight end Keith Heinrich for a 1-yard score that tied the game at 10.
With 7:48 remaining in the fourth quarter, Couch uncorked his best throw of the day - a high lob to Andre Davis in the left corner of the end zone, who just managed to get both feet in bounds on a diving catch that tied the game at 20.
Couch and Dennis Northcutt hooked up on three big plays in the first half, including a beautiful 27-yard out to set up a 39-yard Conway field goal in the second quarter. The two then hooked up on a 44-yard, third-down pass late in the first half, setting the stage for the first game-tying touchdown.
Another 44-yard connection between Couch and Northcutt, who was forced out of bounds at the Denver 16 in the first quarter, gave the Browns a chance to answer the Broncos opening touchdown, but Conway pushed a 38-yard field goal wide right.
The Browns had the first chance in overtime, but were forced three-and-out.
A 23-yard naked bootleg to the Cleveland by Plummer put the Broncos in field-goal position at the Cleveland 30 on their very first offensive play of overtime. Shanahan chose six straight runs by Portis to set up a chip-shot for the win and payed for it. On the play before Elam's final field goal, Portis suffered a sprained right ankle and knee when his leg rolled under Browns defensive end Tyrone Rogers. X-rays on the Broncos star back were negative, but an MRI is still scheduled for today.
"We were moving the football," said Shanahan. "We jsut thought we'd get it into perfect position, and obviously we didn't know Clinton was going to get hurt. If he didn't get hurt and if we had scored a touchdown, it would have been great ... He went down, and we're disappointed, but that's the nature of the game."
The Browns left Denver with a whole different kind of pain.
"I don't know that I've gone in a locker room in 30 years of coaching where I've been prouder of a football team," said Davis. "To fight their guts out and play the way they did, to play every single play the way they did, they deserved a better fate. One of these days, there will be a day when this character test and this hard work and this effort is going to pay off and we're going to win, and we're going to win a lot. Going through these tough times, it builds character."