Courtney Brown and Alvin McKinley teamed up to block a potential game-tying field goal in the final seconds, preserving a thrilling second-half comeback that gave the Browns a 24-21 victory over the New York Jets Sunday at the Meadowlands.
According to Browns coach Butch Davis, in a week when the team mourned the death of its revered owner, "it was the way the game should have ended."
"I told the football team that Al Lerner's entire life was about things like today," said Davis. "It was about perseverance. It was about character. It was about never ever, surrendering. It was about fighting to the bitter end, and I know for a fact that Al Lerner is proud of this football team."
For 30 minutes, the Browns were a disaster, spotting the Jets a 21-6 halftime lead after shooting themselves in the foot on offense, defense and special teams.
The trio's ordinary play led to their taking the brunt of the criticism during the Browns' disappointing three-game losing streak and last week's unconvincing victory over the expansion Houston Texans.
There was no questioning the productivity of Couch, Brown and Warren in Sunday's second half.
Couch authored his finest performance as a Brown, completing 33-of-49 passes for 307 yards, two big third-quarter touchdowns and an even bigger 2-point conversion pass to Dennis Northcutt.
With Jets defensive tackle Josh Evans driving him into the ground, Couch somehow noticed a receiver coming free in the end zone and blindly flipped a desperation pass in his direction. The receiver was Northcutt, who managed to out-jump Aaron Beasley and Damien Robinson for the two-point conversion catch that pulled the Browns into a 21-21 tie with nine seconds remaining in the third quarter.
"I saw him just toss the ball into the air and went all-out to try to get it," said Northcutt. "I had seen him going down. The first man to the ball had to get it. We needed it. I don't think Couch knew I was in the area, but it was all about making plays and the best man got the ball."
With a 6-foot-3, 280-pound lineman driving him into the turf, Couch had no idea which of his receiver was destined to make the grab.
"We needed a two point conversion, I was getting sacked, and I actually had just seen a white jersey flash across my eyes," said Couch. "I just threw it up and Dennis made a great play for us."
Couch also managed to make something out of nothing on both of his touchdown passes. On the touchdown that set up the two-point conversion, Couch spun free of a potential sack by Jason Ferguson, then found Andre Davis alone in the back of the end zone for a 4-yard score. Four minutes earlier, Couch bought time by rolling to his right while the Jets had his receivers blanketed. That allowed tight end Mark Campbell to break free for a 5-yard touchdown pass.
Warren and Brown set the stage for Couch's final touchdown and the game-tying 2-point prayer. Warren's sack of Jets quarterback Chad Pennington forced a fumble that Brown picked out of the air at the Jets' 11-yard line. The sack by Warren was the first of the year by either defensive lineman.
"I am ecstatic for Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren because they've been getting so much flack by people saying they aren't doing enough," said defensive end Kenard Lang. "The reason we won this game was because of them. They made big plays."
The entire Browns defense was made up of playmakers in the second half. The Jets opened the third quarter with three consecutive three-and-out series followed by Pennington's fumble on Warren's sack.
"That's the kind of defense you are going to see from us the rest of the year," said Warren. "That's it. That is the real Cleveland Browns defense, I promise you that."
The second-half effort was in stark contrast to a first half that saw Pennington (19-of-26, 183 yards) give the Jets a big lead on a 37-yard touchdown pass to Laveranues Coles and an 8-yard scoring slant to Wayne Chrebet.
The tone for the Browns' early struggle was set in the game's first minute when a special-teams breakdown allowed Santana Moss to return a punt 63 yards for a Jets' touchdown.
If not for safety Earl Little intercepting a pass and forcing a fumble by Chrebet at the Browns' 3-yard line, ending consecutive second-quarter drives, the Jets might have built an insurmountable lead.
"That first quarter made me sick," said Warren. "We have to correct those early mistakes ... because we shouldn't put ourselves in a position where we have to light a fire at the end. We should do it from the beginning."
The Browns actually survived a series of late blunders that gave the Jets an opportunity to salvage a victory.
Phil Dawson booted the game-winning 35-yard field goal with 3:30 remaining, but only after the Browns missed an opportunity to take a seven-point lead when left tackle Ross Verba was called for illegal hands to the face, negating a first-down at the Jets' 5-yard line.
Another major mistake gave the Jets a second life on their final drive. Browns cornerback Lewis Sanders intercepted a Pennington pass that should have sealed the win with 55 seconds remaining, but an illegal contact penalty called on rookie linebacker Kevin Bentley 20 yards away from the play gave the Jets a first down at the Browns' 34.
Three plays later, Brown and McKinley's block on John Hall's attempt to tie the game with a 44-yard field goal kept the game from going to overtime.
"The Browns kept plugging away and made some plays," said Jets coach Herman Edwards. "They got the momentum. In the end we got some momentum with our offense and moved it down, but we just weren't able to make the field goal ... It's pretty difficult considering the fact that we played pretty well in the first half."