There was no dramatic finish in the Browns return to the Superdome, but Sunday's 24-15 victory over the Saints was far more satisfying.
Browns quarterback Tim Couch called the win "something you would expect out of a playoff team." With their fourth win in five games, the Browns (6-5) are still very much alive in the playoff race, just a half-game behind the Steelers in the AFC North Standings.
"This win means a whole lot more than 1999," said Couch, who tossed the desperation touchdown pass to Kevin Johnson three years ago. "In the Hail Mary game, it was a great feeling to finally get a win. This one solidifies us as a playoff contender. It was a huge win for us. To contend for the playoffs you have to win games like this, on the road against a good teams with a winning record."
For the second week in a row, the Browns made the big plays with their backs to the wall. The Saints (7-4) picked up seven first downs inside the Cleveland 20-yard line, but came away with just one touchdown.
While the Browns' defense forced the Saints to settle for field goals, their offense was busy engineering touchdown drives behind rookie William Green's first 100-yard rushing effort and a handful of big plays.
"The Saints moved the ball, but they struggled (in the red zone)," said Browns coach Butch Davis. "The scenario of us getting touchdowns in the red zone and the other team getting field goals is a great trend. I'll trade sevens for threes and do it all day long."
All three of the Browns' touchdown drives featured big plays from either Couch, the running game, or the special teams.
Couch's 46-yard, play-action heave to Quincy Morgan set up the Browns' first score - a 1-yard plunge by Green (28 carries, 114 yards) that gave the Browns the lead for good at 7-3 with 5:17 remaining in the first quarter.
Couch threw just one touchdown pass - a 24-yarder to Kevin Johnson to put the Browns ahead 21-12 late in the third quarter - in completing 12-of-21 attempts for 182 yards and two hard-luck interceptions. While he wasn't flashy, his obstinate pocket presence in the face of a fierce Saints pass rush was the key to the Browns picking up the big play that helped seal the win.
After the Saints cut the lead to 21-15 on a 48-yard field goal by John Carney, Couch led the Browns on a 13-play, 68-yard drive that ate almost seven minutes off the clock and ended with Phil Dawson booting a 28-yard field goal with 3:25 remaining in the game.
The big play of the drive was a 20-yard pass to Dennis Northcutt that gave the Browns a first-down at the Saints' 39. With 310-pound defensive tackle Norman Hand slamming him to the turf just before he released the ball, Couch didn't have the pleasure of seeing his pass reach its target.
"One of the greatest assets Tim Couch has is that he is one of the most fearless guys in the pocket that I have ever seen," said Davis. "Tim is so gutsy and so tough, and he wants to give every receiver an opportunity to win on routes ... So he hangs in there and he will make that 35-yard play that is the difference in the drive. In this league, if you don't make that 35-yard play, then you probably don't score. In this league, you don't go 60, 70 or 80 yards at 3-yards a crack."
The Browns didn't have to drive that far on their second touchdown drive, thanks to a big play from their special teams. When Saints return man Michael Lewis dropped a punt late in the second quarter, Browns rookie Andra Davis was there to recover it at the Saints' 36.
Two plays later, Northcutt took an inside handoff and darted through the Saints defense for a 36-yard touchdown that extended the Browns' lead to 14-6 going into the half.
The Brown's defense took advantage of a Saints' offense that was missing the NFC's leading rusher, Deuce McAllister, who was forced to sit out with a sprained ankle.
"(McAllister) wanted to play," said Saints coach Jim Haslett. "He came out in the morning for warm ups and we decided we would use him in case of emergency if we needed him. We thought James (Fenderson) and Curtis (Keaton) could handle (the running game)."
Haslett was wrong. The Browns shut down Keaton and Fenderson, holding the Saints to just 74 rushing yards on 21 carries.
The Saints' only two carries of over 10 yards were Fred McAfee's 11-yard run on a fake punt and Fenderson's 17-yard touchdown scamper that pulled the Saints to within two points, 14-12, midway through the third quarter.
Without the benefit of a running game, the Saints' offensive burden fell on quarterback Aaron Brooks, who completed 23-of-40 passes for 318 yards, but was loudly booed for his inability to get his team into the endzone. Brooks was intercepted three times - two spoiling drives deep into Cleveland territory.
Safety Earl Little closed the third quarter by intercepting Brooks' late throw over the middle at the goal line. The first Anthony Henry's two interceptions turned the Saints away at the 1-yard line. It was a key play that followed the Saints' decision to take a 30-yard field goal by Carney off the board and instead go for a touchdown. Browns defensive tackle Kenard Lang was called for a questionable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that gave the Saints a first down at the Cleveland 6.
"That turned out to be a good call," Lang joked. "They took those three points off the board, and then Henry makes the big play to take me off the hook ... I just about kissed Henry as he came off the field ... Those are the kinds of things playoff teams do. They make the big play at the right time."