After nine straight regular-season losses to open Cleveland Browns Stadium, the Browns finally gave their fans a chance to celebrate a home victory with a thrilling 23-20 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The first win in the new stadium could not have been more satisfying for the fans who had waited exactly four years and nine months since the last regular-season home victory.
First, the win came at the expense of their arch rival _ the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Second, they watched franchise quarterback Tim Couch have the best game of his career, completing 23-of-31 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns.
Third, and most importantly, they watched franchise defensive end Courtney Brown come of age with the first three sacks of his NFL career. His final sack of Steelers quarterback Kent Graham sealed the victory in the final seconds.
"I was talking (Sunday) morning with (Browns director of football operations) Dwight Clark about Courtney and how disciplined he is," said Browns coach Chris Palmer. "I said that one of these days Courtney would start stepping up and making plays for us. I am very pleased with him, and I thought with his performance today and by getting his first NFL sack, he was able to get the monkey off his back."
Brown's game-clinching sack was set up by the Steelers' decision to take one final crack at the end zone with 14 seconds remaining and no time outs left rather than kick a game-tying field goal on third-and-goal from the Browns' 6-yard line.
As Graham stepped up in the pocket to give his receivers time to break open, he was dropped by Brown for a 4-yard loss.
"I knew it was do or die," said Brown. "I was blessed with the opportunity to make a big play. I was trying to key the ball. He just stepped up and that was it."
The sack set off a mass of confusion as the Steelers frantically tried to rush their field-goal unit on to the field. Time ran out before Kris Brown could attempt a 27-yard field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.
"Someone had to tell me that the game was over because I was looking at the field watching the Steelers attempt to line up and get off the field-goal attempt," said Palmer.
Graham shouldered the blame for not getting rid of the football when he felt pressure on the final play.
"What I should have done in hindsight, obviously, was throw the ball away," said Graham, who completed 15-of-28 passes for 193 yards. "I was trying to give my receivers a chance to get open by scrambling a little bit and I got caught. The blame has to rest on my shoulders. In that situation I have to throw the ball away. I am obviously very disappointed in that decision."
Steelers coach Bill Cowher was also disappointed in his quarterback's decision.
"It was a pass play all the way," said Cowher. "We had a lot of options and one of them was not to hold on to the ball."
Graham's mistake was not the only key Pittsburgh blunder.
The Steelers (0-2) had an opportunity to seize control of the game leading 20-17 late in the third quarter after cornerback Chad Scott recovered a fumble by Browns wide receiver Darrin Chiaverini at the Cleveland 20.
Two plays after the turnover, Steelers running back Jerome Bettis attempted a halfback pass to a tightly-covered Hines Ward. The poor throw was intercepted by Browns cornerback Corey Fuller at the Cleveland 4.
"It was a bad throw, and I fault myself and only myself because I'm not supposed to throw it if I feel it is going to be intercepted," said Bettis, who was more effective running with 122 yards on 23 carries, including a 10-yard touchdown that put the Steelers ahead 20-17 with 5:47 left in the third quarter. "I threw it anyway. It was picked off and it was an opportunity that was lost. I was very disappointed in myself."
Meanwhile, the Browns (2-1) seemed to make all the right decisions in key situations.
After picking up a first-and-goal at the Steelers' 2 with just over 4:30 remaining in the game and the score tied at 20, the Browns chose to run Errict Rhett three consecutive times against the Steelers' strong interior defense. Rhett gained just one yard on the three combined carries, but the decision to run the ball ate almost two minutes off the clock and forced the Steelers to use the second of their three timeouts.
"The game was one that I thought would go down to the final minutes and one where I thought the clock would be a factor at the end," said Palmer. "On that last series (offensive coordinator) Pete Carmichael and (quarterback coach) John Hufnagel were saying 'let's throw the ball.' I said 'no, let's run it.' That's the prerogative of the head coach. I thought the clock would be important."
Palmer was right. After Rhett's three runs, Phil Dawson kicked a 19-yard field goal to put the Browns ahead 23-20 with 2:45 left in the game.
The drive that led to Dawson's eventual game-winning field goal started at the Browns' 4 and was keyed by a 79-yard pass from Couch to Kevin Johnson.
Couch's throw was just one of several long completions that were instrumental in long scoring drives.
A 28-yard field goal by Dawson with 10:49 left in the game tied the score at 20 and capped a drive that started on the Browns 4. The drive was made possible by perfectly-thrown passes of 38 yards to tight end Aaron Shea and 36 yards to David Patten.
"I thought Tim Couch had another great game," said Palmer. "He continues to improve each week. He was able to check off to other receivers and make plays."
Couch showed his maturity on the first two drives, leading the Browns to back-to-back, first-quarter touchdowns and a 14-0 lead.
"I'm feeling more comfortable," said Couch, who completed passes to eight different receivers. "Not only myself, the whole team is getting more comfortable with the scheme. I have some weapons around me now."
After the final gun sounded, nobody was happier than Couch, who took a victory lap around the stadium, high-fiving the fans in the front row as they celebrated the first win.
"I wanted to show the fans how much we appreciate them sticking with us
through the tough times," said Couch. "It's really special to give the
fans a win at home, especially against Pittsburgh."