From a network executive's standpoint, the Cleveland Browns are nothing short of a godsend. Virtually every game has gone down to the wire, forcing unsuspecting fans to sit through every last car commercial, beer ad, and smarmy
The Browns-Steelers wild card matchup, in fact, promises to be everything that most marquee NFL games are not: A compelling, competitive, and hard fought contest. It's a far cry from the dreary parade of first half drubbings that Monday Night Football subjected us to all year, and the networks know it. Whether it's the unfathomable stupidity of Dwayne Rudd's helmet toss, or the incredible heroism of Rudd's goal line stand against the Falcons, no network honcho in his right mind can say no to the Browns.
After barely winning both regular-season contests against the Browns by a total of six points, Steelers' coach Bill Cowher is more than a little nervous. He's freaking out. Known for his jutting chin and spittle-spraying sideline antics, Cowher surprises analysts when he displays a noticeable facial tick during a pre-game interview session. Cowher looks tired, haggard, and worn down. Former Steeler Earl Holmes openly worries that Cowher has checked into the Dick Vermeil School of Coaching.
Browns coach Butch Davis, meanwhile, is surprisingly loose. An ESPN spot reveals that the coach has all but given up game planning since November, and has taken up Zen Buddhism to help deal with the stress. Fans worry he may have gone overboard.
None of this changes a thing for the Browns.
Holcomb throws four interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns, to spot the Steelers sputtering offense. Corey Fuller, meanwhile, picks up a career high five pass interference penalties and two unnecessary roughness calls in the first half. The few Browns fans in the Heinz Field stands are going berserk, chanting Josh Booty's name for cripes sake, and giving Fuller an earful. The network analysts, who haven't given the Browns a chance all year, are calling it quits and looking ahead to
On the very next play, Dwayne Rudd pops Steeler RB Amos Zeroue on a run up the middle, forcing a fumble that lands right into the waiting hands of… Corey Fuller. Fuller races 33 yards for a score, and the comeback is on. Phil Dawson follows with a perfectly executed onside kick that Daylon McCutcheon scoops up to give the Browns the ball at the 50 yard line. Heinz Field is quiet as a tomb.
But Bill Cowher is having a fit. He levels Plaxico Burress with a roundhouse right as the receiver--part of the Steelers' "hands team"--returns to the sideline after bobbling the kick. It takes two assistant coaches and three
When play resumes, the Browns nearly fumble the ball twice and find themselves facing fourth-and-25 with under a minute to play. In other words, the Browns have the Steelers right where they want them.
Coach Davis stops ohming just long enough to call a 32 Dive. Offensive coordinator Bruce Ariens is aghast. After all, the Steelers boast one of the league's best run defenses, and an up-the-gut run is no way to deal with fourth-and-forever. Butch shakes his head calmly and smiles. "32 Dive. Just do it," he says softly.
William Green takes the handoff and slashes past a surprised Joey Porter, who is charging at Kelly Holcomb to disrupt the inevitable deep pass. By the time the Steelers secondary realizes what is going on, Green is passing the 50 yard line. Quincy Morgan lays a withering block on safety Lee Flowers to open up the sideline, and Green takes it from there. The rookie running back races 65 yards for a score, with just 15 seconds remaining.
The Browns line up for the game-tying extra point as Cowher goes berserk, ripping up a first down marker and tipping over a table full of Gatorade cups. He hurls his headset into the stands, striking a young boy in the face and forcing the local police to move in for a second time. But Cowher is having none of it. He's a one man riot. Four cops go down before a junior policeman fires a canister of tear gas at the long-time Steelers coach. Coughing and (of course) spitting, Cowher is led off in handcuffs to face arraignment on charges of assault, assault with a deadly weapon, resisting arrest, striking a police office, and inciting a riot.
On the field, Butch Davis' Zen philosophy makes for a quick end, as Ryan Kuehl direct snaps the ball to Phil Dawson, who runs untouched into the end zone for two points and a Browns win.
ABC Sports doesn't waste a minute. Half an hour after the game, the network releases its Monday Night Football schedule. The Browns are scheduled to play in every MNF game.