Trailing 28-14 with just over five minutes remaining in the game, Tim Couch, Dennis Northcutt, Andre Davis and Phil Dawson led a heroic comeback that ended in a 31-28 overtime victory over the Tennessee Titans Sunday at the Coliseum in Nashville.
It was a win that helped overshadow the last-second losses that have plagued the Browns the last two seasons, including Dwayne Rudd's helmet toss that helped Kansas City steal a victory in the season opener two weeks ago. More importantly, the win helped the Browns avoid falling to 1-2 with a difficult game in Pittsburgh looming on the horizon.
"I don't think there is a team in the NFL more deserving to win a game like this, with the time's we've been snake-bitten the last few years," said Browns coach Butch Davis. "I talked to the team early in the week and we brought up the first game of the year. We said we can let that let that game do one of two things. It can either build some character for the team, teach us a lesson to fight the entire 60 minutes, or we can let it break us. I knew this football team wouldn't want to surrender."
Headlining the Browns' list of heroes was Couch, who put to rest all talk of a quarterback controversy in his first game back as the Browns starting quarterback, engineering a pair of touchdown drives in the final five minutes. Couch completed 36-of-50 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns. Those totals included 16 completions in 20 attempts for 151 yards on the two late fourth-quarter touchdown drives combined with the an overtime drive that ended with a 33-yard game-winning field goal by Dawson.
Couch called the game "my biggest moment in the NFL."
"There was a lot of talk this week of whether I should even be the quarterback of this team," said Couch, who watched Kelly Holcomb lead the Browns offense in the season's first two weeks while he allowed his injured right elbow to heal. "I said all along I don't really care what people on the outside think. I know the guys in this locker room believe in me and I believe in myself. Hopefully today proved a point."
Couch's only mistake was a throw behind Kevin Johnson that Andre Dyson intercepted and returned 16 yards for a touchdown, giving the Titans a 21-7 lead with 2:56 remaining in the first half. At that time, Couch was still trying to shake off the rust that accumulated during three weeks on the sidelines.
"I finally found my rhythm in the second half and started getting the ball to these great wideouts we have," said Couch.
One of those receivers is rookie Andre Davis, who caught a pair of touchdowns. The first - a 14-yard catch in the back of the end zone on a perfectly thrown pass by Couch - gave the Browns a 7-0 lead after the game's opening drive. The second - a leaping 12-yard grab on the exact same pattern - capped the first of the Browns' fourth-quarter scoring drives and cut the Titans' lead to 28-21 with 2:35 remaining.
The Browns were still in need of a miracle after Davis' score. Northcutt and Dawson answered the call by executing an onside kick the team had practiced just two days earlier. With most of the Browns' coverage team lining up to the right, Dawson punched a high kick towards the left sideline, just over the head of Titans' wide receiver Kevin Dyson. Northcutt raced down the sideline, grabbed the ball after it bounced, and tiptoed both feet in bounds, giving the Browns possession at the Titans' 42-yard line. In Friday's practice, the onside kick was successful just once in two attempts.
"We've been practicing that since last year," said Northcutt. "We haven't ever had a perfect (kick) and catch like that, even in all the times we practiced it. When it counted most, we made it happen."
Nine plays later, Northcutt turned in another dramatic play on an 8-yard touchdown catch that tied the game with 12 seconds remaining.
The throw to Northcutt, who caught the ball at the 5-yard line, was a gamble. With no timeouts remaining, if Northcutt had been tackled there, the Browns might not have had time to run another play. Titans' rookie Mike Echols made a lunge at Northcutt, who eluded the tackle with a quick spin to his right, then waltzed into the endzone.
The onside kick recovery and game-tying touchdown helped Northcutt turn from hero, to goat, then back to hero again.
With the offense struggling in the second half, Northcutt gave the Browns a ray of hope with an electrifying 74-yard punt return for a touchdown that cut the Titans' lead to 21-14 late in the third quarter.
Northcutt spoiled that memory by dropping a punt at his own 9-yard line with 6:44 left in the game and the Browns still trailing by just 7 points. The turnover allowed the Titans to take what appeared to be insurmountable 28-14 lead on Steve McNair's 7-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Dyson with 5:11 to play.
If not for four Browns turnovers, the Titans probably would never have been in the game. Eddie George's 2-yard, first-quarter touchdown run was the only Titans' score not to come off of a Browns' turnover.
Two of the Browns' turnovers were fumbles by rookie running back William Green (8 carries, 26 yards), who had his third consecutive rocky outing. The Titans' second touchdown - a 12-yard pass from McNair to running back John Simon with 8:55 remaining in the second quarter - came just seven plays after Green was stripped by Andre Dyson on a punishing hit by defensive lineman Robaire Smith.
"We didn't play as well as we are capable of playing," said Butch Davis. "We made enough mistakes to last a season. But you can't say anything about this team's heart, character and ability to fight through adversity.
If not for the field position provided by the turnovers and a handful special teams mistakes, the Browns, the Browns defense played a near-perfect game. They held George to just 59 yards on 23 carries, limited McNair to 107 yards on 15-of-23 passing, and never gave up a play longer than 16 yards.
The Browns out-gained the Titans 403 yards to 187.
"Everyone came out there and scratched and clawed," said defensive end Kenard Lang, who turned in the Browns' only sack of McNair. "It was like a pit bull, when it locks onto you and it keeps fighting and fighting."
GAME NOTES ... Phil Dawson missed a 53-yard field goal with 4:36 remaining in the second quarter, ending a streak of 21 consecutive made field goals dating back to last season. He is second in team history behind Matt Stover, who booted 23 consecutive field goals from 1994 to 1995 ... The Titans' 187 net yards was the lowest total allowed by a Browns defense since the Houston Oilers had 182 against the Browns on Nov. 27, 1994 ... If anyone doubted the health of Tim Couch's arm, the four-year veteran set career highs in completions (36) and passes attempted (50), tied his previous best with three touchdown passes, and his 326 yards was just 10 short of his another personal best ... Dennis Northcutt's 74-yard was the first by a punt return for a touchdown by a Brown since Derrick Alexander returned a punt 69 yards for a score against Kansas City in 1995 ... The Browns defense did not give up a single play longer than 20 yards, continuing a trend of avoiding big plays. Kansas City recorded seven plays of over 20 yards in the opener and Cincinnati had just one 20-plus yard play last week ... Kevin Johnson's nine catches (90 yards) was a career high.