It was one of the greatest games the expansion era Browns almost won, but didn't.
It's also one of the most bizarre games not just in Browns history, but one of the most bizarre in the league in recent memory.
You had to see it to believe it, and even when you did see it, you still had a hard time believing it.
Next Wednesday will mark the eighth anniversary of the Browns' 27-21 overtime loss to the Chicago Bears on Nov. 4, 2001 at Soldier Field. Sunday's game between the two teams will mark the Browns' return to Chicago for the first time in the regular season since that fateful day. Lucky for the Browns that no coaches and only two players – kicker Phil Dawson and tight end Steve Heiden – remain on the roster from that day. Both are injured and may not play on Sunday. Maybe it's better that they sit this one out. After all, mental health and the avoidance of excruciating nightmares count for more than playing in one game, especially considering the Browns are having one of their worst seasons ever at 1-6 and with a two-game losing streak.
We're not making more of this than it was, and those who remember the game will attest to that. With 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Browns were leading 21-7 – yes, 21-7 with just 30 ticks left -- and the announcers on CBS' national telecast were talking about how big of a victory it was for Cleveland, and previewing the network's lineup of shows that evening, while the credits for the telecast rolled by on the screen.
To think that the Browns ended up losing is almost unfathomable.
But they did. And here's how it happened.
The Browns, who were just 5-27 their first two seasons back on the field, were off to a great start at 4-2 under first-year head coach Butch Davis. Their turnaround – they had been just 3-13 in 2000 – was the talk of the NFL to that point. They turned even more heads when they beat the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens 24-14 the previous week.
Bears head coach Dick Jauron, the good friend of Chris Palmer, who had coached the Browns in their first two expansion seasons, went into 2001 directly on the hot seat after being just 6-10 and then 5-11 in his first two years on the job. The Bears had responded to that challenge by having one of those seasons you dream about in 2001. Everything they were touching was turning to gold. They could no wrong. As a result, they were 6-1, winning six in a row after losing 17-6 to the Ravens in the opener. Their charmed life was epitomized by the way they defeated the San Francisco 49ers 37-31 in overtime the previous week.
The Browns scored first, and it didn't take long. On the second play of the game, middle linebacker Wali Rainer sacked quarterback Shane Matthews for a 15-yard loss and caused him to fumble. Defensive end Courtney Brown scooped up the ball and raced 25 yards for a touchdown. Dawson's extra point made it 7-0 with just 55 seconds elapsed.
The Browns got the ball as far as the Chicago 41, 42 and 39 on three possessions later in the half but could not score a point. The Bears, though, got a TD to tie it at 7-7 when Anthony Thomas ran two yards with just 20 seconds left before halftime. Cleveland took control of the game in the third quarter by scoring two TDs to go up 21-7. The first came just seven plays into the half when Tim Couch passed three yards to fullback Mike Sellers.
After the Browns thwarted a Chicago drive to the Cleveland 18 when cornerback Ray Jackson intercepted Matthews, they needed just four plays to go 92 yards for the other score. It came on Couch's 55-yard pass to his favorite target, wide receiver Kevin Johnson.
Things looked great for the Browns when, still up by that two-TD margin, drove from their 43 to a first down at the Chicago 32 with just 3:52 left in the fourth quarter. The march was stymied by a delay-of-game penalty as the Browns, in trying to milk the clock as much as possible, pushed the envelope a little too far. No problem, though, as they punted the Bears back to the Chicago 20, where the hosts started with 1:52 left.
When James Allen ran for only one yard on the first play, causing the few fans who were left at Soldier Field to begin a chorus of boos, the Browns started celebrating.
But it was premature. The game deteriorated rapidly from that point.
Matthews threw incomplete to wide receiver Marty Booker on the next play, but the ruling was challenged by the replay official and the call was reversed, giving Chicago a 14-yard gain. Matthews passed 12 yards to the other wideout, Dez White, on the next play, and followed that up with throws of nine yards to wide receiver David Terrell, 17 to Allen and 13 to White to put the ball on the Cleveland 13.
The Browns were then flagged for 12 men on the field on a play when Matthews threw incomplete. The replay official attempted to review the play, but couldn't do so because the next play had already been run. So the penalty stood.
Starting to get the picture here?
Two plays later, Matthews passed nine yards to Booker for TD, but with just 28 seconds left, all that did was make the game appear to be closer, at 21-14, than it really was. The Bears tried an onside kick, of course, and, after a huge scrum in front of their bench, they recovered the ball at the Cleveland 47. Now things were beginning to get a lot more serious, but still, with 24 seconds left and just one timeout, the Bears were going to need divine intervention to score and tie the game.
They got just that.
Matthews passed twice to Allen, first for four yards and then for nine, taking the ball to the 34, at which time the Bears used their third – and final -- timeout.
The Bears were obviously going to try a Hail Mary pass into the end zone. It was their only shot. Matthews retreated into the pocket and heaved the ball into the far right side of the end zone. A large group of players went up together to try to grab it, but the ball was deflected back toward the middle of the end zone. Allen came racing in to make a sliding catch of the ball before it hit the ground. The Bears, following an extra point by Paul Edinger, had managed to tie the score at 21-21 as the gun sounded in regulation.
Now the momentum was all with the Bears, of course. They were going to win. You just knew it. The only question left was how it would happen.
That was discovered soon enough.
The Bears won the toss to start the OT, but they went three plays and out, punting the Browns to the Cleveland 12. Couch threw to Johnson for 16 yards on the first play to seemingly get the team out of that hole, then got sacked for a five-yard loss, setting up a second-and-15 situation at the 23. Sensing the Bears would bring the house again to try to sack Couch once more and drive the visitors back even further toward their own goal line, Cleveland called a screen pass to Jamel White on the left side. Couch, after letting the rushers come in to set up the play and clear out an area for White, flipped the ball the ball that way, but the running back never got it – never got close to it, in fact.
The ball was tipped up into the air by defensive end Bryan Robinson, and safety Mike Brown caught it on the dead run and raced 16 yards into the end zone untouched for the game-winning TD. He would return two interceptions for TDs that year. More amazing.
A year earlier in Chicago, when the Browns lost backup quarterback Ty Detmer to a torn Achilles tendon in a preseason game, then director of football operations Dwight Clark, completely stunned by the fact Couch had lost his caddy – his safety net – and the huge problems it could potentially cause -- had an ashen look on his face. As the Browns players and coaches exited the field after Brown's TD, they had that same ashen look on their faces.
The Bears lost the next week to the Green Bay Packers but then got back on the right foot and just kept winning and winning. When it was all said and done, they had finished the regular season 13-3, but they lost 33-19 to the Eagles at home in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Browns went on to lose in OT the following week as well, 15-12 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They won the next two to get to 6-4, where they were in possession of the AFC's last wild-card spot. But they faded down the stretch, losing five of their last six to finish 7-9.
Still, considering what had happened the previous two years, it was a great season that had provided a lot of hope for the future.
And, who knows, it might have been an even better season if that nightmare in Chicago had not happened to take the wind out of their sails. The Browns can only hope that something like that never happens to them – in Soldier Field or anywhere else.