To those who believe that winning the last game of one season actually creates momentum heading into the next one, this clash was important no matter how Tennessee fared in Indianapolis that night.
To those with a "glass half empty" view, the outcome was of no importance. A Titans loss would send the Browns to the playoffs. A Titans win would eliminate them. And that rendered the Cleveland-San Francisco game meaningless.
But the pride the Browns had gained during their resurgent season brought passion for Game 16. After all, didn't The Sporting News predict a 3-13 record? Didn't Sports Illustrated have them at 5-11? Didn't one national football writer rank them as the worst team in the NFL?
Yeah, they had something to play for. And if the Colts did them a favor and beat the Titans, the Browns wanted to make certain they entered the playoffs with momentum and at peak efficiency.
"I know the game doesn't mean anything if we won or lose," safety Sean Jones told the Canton Repository. "But we don't want to go into a playoff game with a loss. We've got to take care of San Francisco."
And if they slid into the postseason, linebacker Chaun Thompson believed them to be ready.
"I think we're a sleeper," said Thompson, who was on Cleveland teams that had combined for a 19-45 record from 2003 through 2006. "People will be thinking they've never been here before … it'll be the old Browns. But we'll come in with a whole different attitude. If we get in, we'll be a force to be reckoned with."
The Browns did have two goals in reach – a 7-1 home slate that would include a seven-game winning streak, and their first 10-win season since the original Browns occupied Municipal Stadium in 1994.
Wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who had already earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, wanted to finish the year strong. Nothing was on the line but pride, but this was a team that finally had something to be proud of.
"Against San Francisco, we're going to try to play our best game this year," Edwards said. "If it is our best game, we gave it everything we have. We did what the city wanted. We fought strong. We had a 10-win season. We finished on a good note. If it's a situation where Tennessee loses, we have some momentum going into the playoffs."
Or momentum heading into 2008? If you're a "glass half full" person, then the answer was yes.
The Browns took the field at 12:58 p.m. knowing that their fates wouldn't be decided for another 10 hours.
But that uncertainty didn't prevent the defense from continuing the progress it had made toward season's end in a 20-7 victory over San Francisco.
The Browns held the 49ers to just 185 total yards, though one must admit that San Francisco quarterback Chris Weinke wasn't exactly performing like Joe Montana out there.
And when a big play was needed, the same guys who had made them all season did the same for the Browns on this Sunday. Josh Cribbs opened the scoring with two minutes left in the first quarter when he raced 76 yards with a punt return for a touchdown.
A few minutes later, quarterback Derek Anderson threw his 29th scoring pass of the year, a 45-yard strike to Braylon Edwards, who recorded his single-season team-record 16th touchdown reception.
Anderson hurt his pinkie on the play, which motivated coach Romeo Crennel to warm up backup quarterback Brady Quinn, which in turn prompted cheers from the home fans. And when Quinn jogged onto the field after a 2-yard touchdown pass from Weinke to Darrell Jackson cut the lead to 14-7, the cheers turned into an ovation.
Quinn didn't let them down. After two incomplete passes, he fired a 15-yarder over the middle to tight end Steve Heiden, then completed two more passes to set up a 23-yard field goal by Phil Dawson that gave the Browns a 17-7 lead with a minute left in the first half.
Though many of the fans would have preferred to watch Quinn complete what in the playoff picture was a meaningless game, Anderson did return for the second half, bruised pinkie and all. But the defense played a far larger role in clinching the victory, shutting out the 49ers the rest of the way while the Browns only added 49-yard field goal by Dawson after intermission.
In the end, however, the Browns became only the fifth team in NFL history – all since 1981 – to miss the playoffs with a 10-6 record. And that was very little consolation. They didn't know it as they spoke to the media after the game, but they would be heading home.
The Browns had their fingers crossed as they celebrated their victory over the 49ers. But the Colts were about to cross them.
Indianapolis didn't play its starters in the second half, opting to rest them for the playoffs. The result was a loss to Tennessee that sent the Titans in and the Browns out of the postseason. In the end, Cleveland had a worse record against common opponents – the third tiebreaker had sent the Browns to the sidelines.
When reached close to midnight, coach Romeo Crennel spoke about the frustration of losing out on an opportunity to play for a title and the happiness he felt about turning the franchise around. His team, after all, had won six more games than they had in 2006 and finished 7-1 at home.
"We are disappointed that we didn't reach the playoffs," he told the Associated Press. "However, we had a good year. We learned a lot, grown a lot and look forward to build on what we've accomplished this season."
One thing they learned was that one poor performance could make the difference between a good year and a great one. A victory over the weak Cincinnati Bengals in Game 15 not only would have placed the Browns in the postseason, but would have also given them their first division championship in 20 years.
Edwards, who came of age in 2007 and blossomed into one of the premier wide receivers in the NFL, spoke about the achievement he and his teammates let slip through their fingers a week earlier. His 1,289 receiving yards set a single-season franchise record, but he was not smiling.
"We could have closed the door last week," Edwards lamented to espn.com. "We had that chance but we forfeited it by losing to a lesser team."
The most significant aspect of the final-week victory was Quinn's performance. Though he completed just 3 of 8 passes, two others were dropped and he did look quite sharp for a rookie who had spent his entire season watching and learning from the sideline. He felt goose bumps as he ran onto the field and soaked in the ovation from Browns fans.
"It was amazing," Quinn said. "We have the best fans in Cleveland. I'm a hometown kid. It was nice coming back to play in front of people who watched you in high school and college. I had to dust off some rust when I went out there."
Browns tight end Kellen Winslow, who caused a bit of controversy when he offered that Quinn was the Browns quarterback of the future, liked what he saw from the rookie.
"Brady stepped in there like he's been in there for a long time," Winslow said. "He was very composed. Derek Anderson is still growing. He's still learning. He's proved he's a warrior coming back from what we had. We've got some warriors on this team. Maybe we can get some Monday night or Sunday night games next year so that people can see us."
Winslow and the Browns were indeed rewarded with five prime time games in 2008. And if the team takes as large a leap as it did in 2007, they will play more prime time games.