CLEVELAND -- They won and waited. And then, the Cleveland Browns were forced to wait some more before they could celebrate.
|Rookie RB William Green takes charge on the ground with 178 yards rushing and a 64-yard TD. (AP)|
Could there be any other way?
However, Cleveland's first postseason berth since 1994 wasn't secured until hours later, when the New York Jets beat Green Bay.
"This is just how our season has been," said wide receiver Quincy Morgan. "Everything hanging from a thread."
The Browns went from an expansion team to the playoffs in only four years. The franchise moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens in 1996, and Cleveland was awarded an expansion team in 1999.
Also appropriate for this crazy season, the Falcons lost and made it back to the playoffs anyway. Atlanta (9-6-1) backed into the NFC playoffs as a wild card when New Orleans lost at home to Carolina. Atlanta last appeared in the postseason in 1998, when it went to the Super Bowl.
"I'm disappointed that we didn't get the job done ourselves," Falcons coach Dan Reeves said.
"I'm really, really, really down," Atlanta tight end Alge Crumpler said. "Maybe a lot of guys are. I feel like we backed into these playoffs."
Browns linebacker Earl Holmes stopped Warrick Dunn at the 1 on a 4th-and-goal with 23 seconds left, and the Browns (9-7) ran out the clock for their biggest win since returning to the league.
They did it without quarterback Tim Couch, who broke his right leg in the first half, and won another gut-wrenching game despite committing four turnovers.
"This game was a microcosm of the whole season," Browns coach Butch Davis said. "What can you say?"
When the final seconds ticked off, the Browns -- led by linebacker Dwayne Rudd, whose impulsive helmet toss in Week 1 cost Cleveland a win -- ran to midfield and danced in celebration on the Browns' orange helmet logo as 73,528 fans rocked Browns Stadium.
"I think we're living our dream right now," Green said.
Remember, though, these are the 2002 Browns, and absolutely nothing is easy.
"It's been a rollercoaster of a season, and the ride hasn't stopped," said quarterback Kelly Holcomb, who replaced Couch.
Cleveland's players went to the locker room having done all they could, but they had to wait for the final score from New England, where the Miami Dolphins and Patriots went to overtime.
When Adam Vinatieri's 35-yard field goal went through early in OT to give the Patriots a 27-24 win, it gave the Browns a chance. Then, their last hope hinged on the Jets beating the Packers.
"Brutal," Browns offensive lineman Ryan Tucker said at the thought of having to watch the late game.
But at 7:16 p.m., the Browns officially became a playoff team when the Jets drubbed the Packers 42-17.
Cleveland will play the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round.
Holcomb, who looked rusty in his first appearance since Oct. 6, threw a 15-yard TD pass to Kevin Johnson to put the Browns up 17-16 with 6:58 remaining.
Green then gave Cleveland some breathing room when he busted through a pile at the line of scrimmage and sprinted down the right side for his second TD.
But Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, as he's done all season, drove the Falcons downfield. His 12-yard pass to Trevor Gaylor gave the Falcons a first down at the Browns 4.
Dunn ran it to the 1, and Vick threw an incompletion on second down. Rudd then submarined Dunn just short of a TD on third down, and Holmes tackled the Atlanta running back on fourth -- inches from a score that would have brought the Falcons within a 2-point conversion of tying it.
As they began their final drive, the Falcons heard over the stadium P.A. that the Saints had lost.
"That was kind of a sigh of relief," Vick said. "But I still wanted to win the game."
Vick finished 17-of-40 for 240 yards and one touchdown.
Holcomb went 7-of-14 for 86 yards and threw two interceptions in the third quarter to set up Atlanta scores.
After missing a 28-yard chip shot before halftime, Jay Feely made kicks from 42, 49 and 30 yards in the third quarter to give the Falcons a 16-10 lead.
Couch, a target of fan abuse in Cleveland all season because of his inconsistency, broke the fibula in his right leg on the first play of the second quarter. He stayed in for one more snap before hobbling to the sideline as Holcomb trotted in.
On Cleveland's next possession, Holcomb completed a key third-down pass to Johnson and Green gave the Browns a 10-0 lead with a 21-yard TD run.
Vick drove the Falcons to the Browns 10 in the final two minutes of the half, and appeared to Crumpler for a TD pass with nine seconds left.
However, officials ruled the ball hit the ground, and instant replay did not overturn the call. Feely then had his 28-yard field goal attempt clank off the right upright.
Phil Dawson's 40-yard field goal gave the Browns a 3-0 lead.
- Green's 178 yards were the most by a Browns running back since Dec. 16, 1984, when Earnest Byner got 188 against the Houston Oilers.
- Feely's 32 field goals broke Morten Andersen's single-season club record of 31, set in 1995.
- Reeves is now 10-3 in his career vs. Cleveland.
The Associated Press News Service
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