In a season filled with bizarre twists and turns, unbelievable thrills and crushing heartbreaks, the Browns used a heroic goal line stand in the final seconds and a 178-yard rushing performance by rookie William Green to hold off the Atlanta Falcons for a 24-16 victory Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
When they left the field to a rousing ovation from 73,528 frenzied fans, the Browns thought they were on the verge of clinching their first playoff berth since 1994. All the Browns needed was a Miami victory in New England to secure the AFC's final wild card, and for most of the day, that seamed all but assured.
But after New England overcame an 11-point deficit late in the fourth quarter to escape with an overtime victory, the Browns were forced to wait three hours to learn their postseason fate.
"You only can control what you can control," said Davis. "We did our part, and that's the bad part about having to rely on other teams."
Finally, the New York Jets win over Green Bay Sunday night eliminated New England and Miami from playoff contention and assured the Browns of a spot in the playoffs.
The Browns will open the postseason in Pittsburgh's Heinz Field against the arch-rival Steelers next week.
For most of the day, the Browns' hopes of reaching the playoffs hung from a thin thread. They lost starting quarterback Tim Couch to a fractured right fibula late in the first quarter. Then, after backup Kelly Holcomb (7-of-14, 86 yards, 2 interceptions) and the Cleveland offense turned the ball over on three consecutive third-quarter possessions, the Browns watched their early 10-0 lead slip away.
Michael Vick's 15-yard touchdown pass to Brian Finneran allowed Atlanta to pull to within 10-7 at the half, and third-quarter field goals of 42, 49 and 30 yards by Jay Feely gave the Falcons a 16-10 lead going into the final 15 minutes.
As a team used to having games decided in the final minutes, the Browns felt right at home.
"I think a lot of our close ballgames were totally a dress rehearsal for today," said Davis. "Our guys continued to fight and play. I can't tell you how proud I am of this football team."
The comeback started with cornerback Corey Fuller stripping Falcons' fullback George Layne of the football at the Atlanta 11-yard line. Defensive tackle Gerard Warren came out of the pileup with the football, and three plays later, Holcomb took advantage of the turnover by finding Kevin Johnson for a 15-yard touchdown that gave the Browns a 17-16 lead with 6:58 remaining in the game.
"This is the way NFL football is supposed to be," said Johnson, one of only 10 players remaining from the Browns' 1999 expansion team and the only Brown to start every game since that season. "We know every game is going to come down to the last minute or so, and opportunities are going to present themselves to pull out a win."
Green made the most out of the Browns' next opportunity, turning a slim 1-point lead into a commanding 8-point advantage with a 64-yard sprint down the left sideline for the game's final touchdown. The big run was the finishing touch on Green's brilliant 27-carry, 178-yard performance that included a 21-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter.
"It was a good finish," said Green, who bounced off the right side of the line, then stepped out of a diving tackle by safety Keion Carpenter near midfield before breaking into the open on his 64-yard run. "The offensive line did a good job of opening up the hole, so I just took the ball and ran. I think one guy touched me."
The Browns still needed some late heroics from their defense to seal the win. After watching Vick march the Falcons down the field and pick up a first down at the Browns' 4-yard line with just over a minute remaining, the defense came up with a goal-line stand that will live forever in Browns' folklore.
"Our defense had a heroic goal-line stand at the end of the game and certainly that was the winning series," said Davis. "But they had some unbelievable defensive possessions throughout the game against Michael Vick and his scrambling ability."
Limiting Vick, who is considered one of the most electrifying young offensive weapons in football, was the Browns' focus all week long. Vick finished with 240 passing yards, completing just 17-of-40 attempts. He also rushed for just 37 yards.
Despite losing, the Falcons (9-6-1) managed to clinch an NFC wild card berth when Carolina eliminated New Orleans in a surprising 10-6 victory.
The Browns victory was just their third in eight home games, but it clinched a 9-7 final record - their first winning season since 1994 and just their second since 1989.