CINCINNATI - With the nightmare of 2003 finally behind him, Butch Davis stood just outside the visiting locker room at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday and admitted he let his team down.
"There are some things I could have done better as a head coach," Davis said in a rare introspective public display by the Cleveland Browns coach.
After a win that ended the Browns season on an unexpected bright note, Davis said he felt like his team "bailed me out."
Led by rookie running back Lee Suggs, whose career day was highlighted by the longest run from a Cleveland running back in 26 years, the Browns spoiled the Cincinnati Bengals playoff hopes with a stunning 22-14 victory.
That long run - a 78-yard touchdown sprint in the second quarter - combined with another 25-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter, helped Suggs to a 26-carry, 186-yard afternoon.
As a team, the Browns rushing attack posted a season-best 264 yards on 40 carries - quite a feat for an injury-riddled offense that pressed the inexperienced Joaquin Gonzalez and Enoch DeMar into service on the left side of the offensive line.
"If I said (Suggs) did it a lot of what he did by himself, I think it would be a disservice to some of the other guys," said Davis. "Obviously the offensive line did a heck of a job. They got him some openings and they got him at least to the second level. At times (Suggs) made people in the second level miss, and when he got into the secondary, some other guys deserve a lot of credit."
On the 78-yard counter that Suggs broke to the right sideline, wide receiver Andre Davis delivered a key downfield block on Bengals cornerback Troy James, who had an angle that may have managed to force Suggs out of bounds before he reached the goal line.
"They were over-pursuing a whole lot," said Suggs. "I just cut back and outran everybody. All I could think about was don't get caught."
The electrifying touchdown was Suggs' first as a professional, and it gave the Browns their first lead at 13-7 with 2:06 remaining in the first half.
After Rudy Johnson lifted the Bengals back on top, 14-13, with a 2-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, Suggs put his talent on display again, then spinning out of a tackle near the goal line on a 25-yard touchdown that gave the Browns a 19-14 lead with just 7:54 remaining.
Prior to that fourth-quarter score, the Browns had gone three-and-out on their first three drives of the second half after dominating the Bengals with what was already a season-high 188 rushing yards in the first two quarters..
"The third quarter was a tough little stretch for us," said Browns quarterback Tim Couch, who threw just 18 passes, completing nine for 115 yards. "We put ourselves in a hole on some third-and-longs, and we didn't look good for a few minutes. But we made the plays when we had to in the fourth quarter, and it was great to get a win."
Couch delivered two of the game's key fourth-quarter plays, converting a pair of third downs to set the stage for Suggs' late touchdown and possibly helping to convince the Browns braintrust to keep him around for another season. On 3rd-and-11, Couch stepped up to avoid backside pressure, then delivered an 18-yard strike on the run to Andre Davis at the sideline.
Couch then gave the Browns another set of downs with a 19-yard slant to Frisman Jackson on 3rd-and-12. Two plays later, Suggs broke free for his 25-yard touchdown.
The Browns could have put the Bengals away in the closing minutes, but after failing to reach the end zone on three straight dives by Suggs from the Cincinnati 1-yard line, they were forced to settle for an 18-yard Brett Conway field goal with 1:13 remaining, extending the lead to 8 points.
"This game scared me right at the end because we couldn't knock it in from the one," said Browns offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "That's been our problem on offense all year long ... We gave them a chance to tie at the end. We have to learn to put people away."
Fortunately, the Browns defense managed to put away Cincinnati. Needing a touchdown and a 2-point conversion in the last minute to force overtime and keep their playoff hopes alive, the Bengals managed only three snaps in their final drive before Browns safety Robert Griffith sealed the win by intercepting a Jon Kitna pass near midfield with 47 seconds to play.
After slow start that saw the Bengals drive 80 yards for a 5-yard Rudy Johnson touchdown on their opening possession, the Browns held the Bengals to just 215 net yards in the game's final 56 minutes.
"Obviously it is considerably easier to go into the offseason on a positive," said Davis. "When you win the last game you feel a little bit better about yourself. In this instance alone, it's a testimony of this team's willingness to keep trying, keep fighting and keep working, no matter how tough things were and how much adversity there was."
Even in victory, there were a few sour notes for the Browns. By eliminating the Bengals, the Browns secured the AFC North Division title for the Baltimore Ravens in Art Modell's final season as owner. The win could also keep the Browns from landing the offensive tackle they reportedly covet in the upcoming NFL Draft - Iowa's Robert Gallery.
A loss to the Bengals would have put the Browns in a five-way tie with Arizona, San Diego, Oakland, and the New York Giants for the NFL's worst record at 4-12, guaranteeing a top-five draft pick.
The win leaves the Browns tied with Washington, Atlanta, Detroit, Jacksonville and Houston at 5-11, the Browns will draft anywhere from No. 5 to 10 in the first round, depending on final strength of schedule.