Twice the Browns had prepared to play Cincinnati. And twice they stared at the crossroads.
In September, one road led to oblivion, the other to respectability. The Browns were coming off an opening-week shellacking by Pittsburgh, had sent starting quarterback Charlie Frye packing to Seattle, and were gazing forlornly at another lost year.
But, lo and behold, they recovered to beat the visiting Bengals, 51-45, displaying an offense in the process that would take the NFL by storm.
Now, with two weeks remaining in the regular season and a trip to Cincinnati coming up, the Browns were again eyeing that fork in the road. A victory would assure their first postseason berth since 2002. A loss would take their playoff destiny out of their hands and into the clutches of the Tennessee Titans.
Though three months had passed since that first Cincinnati game, the Browns remembered it well. While they were licking their wounds, the Bengals were enjoying the fruits of an encouraging 27-20 victory over Baltimore.
"Getting a win against Cincinnati, a playoff-caliber team, we knew that we could compete against anybody," Browns linebacker and co-captain Andra Davis told the Columbus Dispatch. "So that gave us confidence for the rest of the season. We knew we had to win, because we couldn't lose two division games back-to-back like that. We needed to win that game, and thank God we did."
The Bengals were eventually unmasked as a non-contender. They were 4-8 since that time heading into Game 15 while the surprising Browns compiled an 8-4 record. Prolific Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer believed that game sent the I-71 rivals in opposite directions.
"Really, we kind of catapulted them into the season they've had, and since that game we haven't really gotten back on track," Palmer said. "Too bad it was Game 2, because it's been a long season for us. It kind of set the tone for both teams, the winner and the loser."
It certainly set the tone for Browns quarterback Derek Anderson, who threw for 328 yards and career-high five touchdowns in that victory. He received plenty of help – Jamal Lewis added a season-best 216 yards rushing and both Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow exceeded 100 yards receiving.
But with a blustery wind swirling around Paul Brown Stadium, the notion of firing the ball all over the field and into the end zone on this Sunday seemed a bit far-fetched. The Browns tried to do just that and many believe it cost them a spot in the playoffs.
When gusts of wind turn footballs into knuckleballs, the common practice is to stick it in the gut of your featured back.
The Bengals subscribed to that theory on this Sunday afternoon even though top back Rudi Johnson was sidelined with a hamstring injury. Figuring the Browns struggled to stop the run and that the strong winds make throwing with accuracy nearly impossible, the Bengals handed the ball 30 times to backup Kenny Watson, who responded with 130 yards and a touchdown.
The Browns? They allowed Anderson to throw 48 passes while giving Jamal Lewis just 21 carries. The result was four critical interceptions and a 19-14 defeat that proved catastrophic to their playoff chances.
Certainly, many of Anderson's tosses came after the Bengals had taken a 19-0 halftime lead. And he did fire two scoring strikes to Edwards in the second half that put the Browns back into the game.
But it was his interceptions on successive plays in the second quarter that ultimately doomed the Orange and Brown. The first set up a 5-yard touchdown pass from Palmer to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the second a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Watson. Both were thrown into heavy traffic.
The Browns opened the second half with a 12-play drive, but another theft of an Anderson pass deep in Cincinnati territory killed that scoring opportunity. They finally converted with 40 seconds remaining in the third quarter on a 2-yard pass from Anderson to Edwards that sliced the deficit to 19-7.
The Browns caught fire again on their next possession, driving to the Cincinnati 17, but Anderson misfired on a pass to Winslow, which was picked off by Jonathan Joseph. Palmer's lone interception of the afternoon gave the Browns another chance, however, and they cashed in on 5-yard touchdown pass from Anderson to Edwards with six minutes remaining.
They still had hope, particularly when a Watson fumble was recovered by linebacker D'Qwell Jackson with 1:48 left. But in a season of miracles, Anderson and the Browns didn't have one on this day. His final heave into the end zone hit nothing but turf and the Browns trudged into their locker rooms with their playoff dreams out of their hands.
Coaches and players love to talk about controlling one's own destiny. They feel far more comfortable in possession of their own fate.
Well, now the Tennessee Titans controlled the Browns' destiny. Both finished the week at 9-6, but the Titans owned the tiebreaker on the basis of a better record against AFC competition.
And if one player was to take the blame for the loss at Cincinnati, it was Anderson, the same guy whose blossoming allowed the Browns to become contenders in the first place. His four interceptions doomed his team in the most important game of the year.
"It's a tough battle to fight when you're throwing four picks," Anderson told the Associated Press. "A couple of them were bad decisions, and a couple of them got hung up in the air."
Edwards, who snagged touchdown passes 14 and 15 to surpass Gary Collins as the all-time Browns single-season touchdown reception leader, wasn't in the mood to celebrate. He watched Anderson's passes flutter in the wind gusts all day.
"There were some throws where the ball just died or went in a completely different direction than (Anderson) was anticipating," Edwards said.
Palmer had no idea why the Browns coaches called for so many pass plays, particularly before they fell behind by three touchdowns. He was certainly content to hand the ball off to Watson.
"I never really got a good sense of which way it was blowing," Palmer said. "It was really swirling. It was an ugly game, and a tough one to play in if you're trying to throw the football."
Another Browns player who could have been celebrating, but was in no mood, was kick returner Josh Cribbs. He had learned that he had been voted into the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career. But the loss took the joy out of that – at least temporarily – and would make this a little less of a jolly Christmas.
"We dug ourselves a hole," Cribbs told USA Today. "We made it too hard for ourselves. It wasn't about effort. It was about mistakes. Now we're counting on the Jets for a Christmas gift."
The Jets, who had been the Browns' victim the week before, didn't do them any favors on this day. Their 10-6 loss to Tennessee handed the reins to the Titans in the race for the last playoff spot.
"We had a chance to enjoy Christmas," lamented Edwards. "Now we have to watch the scenarios, and that's not how you want to do it."
Lady Luck had been on the Browns' side all season. But she was to turn her back on them when they needed her the most.