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The barking of the dedicated, blue-collar fans in

By David CarducciRecord-Courier staff writer Published: November 22, 1999 12:00 AM

The barking of the dedicated, blue-collar fans in the Dawg Pound, the dog bones, the fierce wind whipping in off the lake, and a consistently strong football team combined to make playing in old Cleveland Municipal Stadium a daunting task.

Those days are over.

Now, a trip to Cleveland's sparkling new, state-of-the-art stadium is just the medicine struggling football teams need to get back on track.

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On Sunday, it was the Carolina Panthers who rediscovered their winning ways by dominating Cleveland for a 31-17 victory that kept the Browns winless in five home games this season.

The loss was the second straight dismal performance at home on the heels of a thrilling victory on the road.

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"I don't know what it is that's keeping us from playing well at home," said Browns linebacker Wali Rainer. "We just have to start making plays, especially at home. We have to get the crowd in the game and keep them in the game."

The Browns failed to give their fans a reason to get excited, falling behind 31-3 and sending the sellout crowd of 72,818 streaming for the exits with more than 10 minutes left in the game.

"I felt the game came down to our inability to run the ball with any consistency," said Browns coach Chris Palmer. "When we had a chance to make plays, we didn't."

The Browns running game, which has basically been non-existent all season long, was at its worst. Starting running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar gained just 11 yards on seven carries before being benched at halftime. In all, the Browns managed just 60 yards on the ground, with just under half being generated by the scrambling of rookie quarterback Tim Couch (27 yards on 5 carries).

When the Browns tried to move the ball through the air, they found similar misery.

Rookie wide receiver Kevin Johnson dropped several passes, including one on a slant pass early in the second half, that, instead of picking up a first down, deflected into the hands of Panthers safety Eric Davis for an interception.

"We had too many dropped passes," said Palmer. "We had too many breakdowns. We didn't make plays, and in this league you have to make plays."

Meanwhile, Carolina's offense clicked on all cylinders against a Cleveland defense that missed too many tackles and failed to get off the field on third downs.

Tshimanga Biakabutuka, who returned from an injured right ankle that kept him out of the last three games, led the Panthers rushing attack with 93 yards on 17 carries.

"Honestly, I was surprised at how well Tshimanga played," said Carolina quarterback Steve Beuerlein. "I knew he was still favoring the ankle this week in practice. I wasn't sure how it would hold up in the game, but late in the third quarter he was still running through tackles. The defense had to focus on him, and that opened things up for our passing game."

Beuerlein shredded the Browns secondary before donning a baseball cap on the sidelines early in the fourth quarter, completing 21-of-27 passes for 199 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Wesley Walls in the second quarter and a 1-yard touchdown toss to former Brown Brian Kinchen.

Seven different receivers caught at least two passes, with wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad the primary target, catching seven passes for 72 yards.

The Browns passing game posted deceiving numbers. Tim Couch completed 29-of-46 passes for 259 yards, but was intercepted twice. Couch's first interception was caused when his spike caught in the turf, forcing his throw to sail over a wide open Irv Smith, and right into the waiting hands of Panthers safety Brent Alexander early in the second quarter.

Cleveland found a number of different ways to self-destruct throughout the game. Trailing 3-0 in the first quarter, the Browns mounted an impressive seven-minute drive that culminated with a fourth-and-goal at the Panthers' 1.

Palmer chose to gamble on fourth down, but a false-start penalty called against left guard Jim Pyne forced the Browns to settle for a game-tying 23-yard field goal by Phil Dawson.

"We figured we'd go for the lead, and if we didn't get it, at least we'd have (Carolina) pinned down deep," said Palmer. "Pyne said he went on hut, and the official felt he went too soon. The play was going to be a run."

Statistically, the Browns had just 13 fewer yards than the Panthers (317), and had the same number of first downs (22).

Most of those numbers were generated during garbage time in the fourth quarter, when the Browns scored a pair of late touchdowns.

Terry Kirby was the first Brown to reach the end zone, scoring on a 2-yard touchdown run with 5:21 left in the game.

With just 10 seconds left, rookie wide receiver Darrin Chiaverini caught his first career touchdown pass, taking a bone-crushing hit from Panthers linebacker Mike Minter and still managing to hold onto a 12-yard scoring pass from Couch.

Chiaverini turned in a gutsy performance starting in place of injured veteran Leslie Shepherd. The rookie from Colorado caught eight passes for 72 yards, despite playing on an injured toe that forced him to take pain killers early in the game.

"It may be great to have the kind of day I had, but the bottom line is winning, and the fact is we didn't win," said Chiaverini. "It was nice to get that first touchdown pass, but really it doesn't mean a lot because the team did not play well. The touchdown doesn't make me feel any better."

With Tennessee (8-2) coming to town next week, followed by home games against playoff bound Jacksonville and Indianapolis, the Browns are on the brink of a winless season at home.

"I don't know why we can't play well at home," said cornerback Antonio Langham, who came up with the team's lone defensive highlight when he forced Muhammad to fumble after catching a pass deep in Cleveland territory midway through the second quarter. "Now I guess it is back to the drawing board, and hopefully, we can come out and play better next week."

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