Saturday, December 22, 2007

Deja Vu All Over Again

It's kind of fitting that the Cleveland Browns playoff fate may hinge on the outcome of tomorrow's game against the Cincinnati Bengals, if only because late season Bengals games have featured prominently in many of Cleveland's playoff chases during seasons past. In fact, tomorrow will mark the seventh (or maybe even the eighth) time that the two teams have met in a December game with big-time playoff implications for the Browns.

The Browns and Bengals first met with the playoffs at stake on December 9, 1972 at Riverfront Stadium. The Browns won that day, but just barely. After the Browns took a 27-24 lead on a 27 yard Don Cockroft field goal with 4:03 remaining, Cincinnati marched to the Cleveland 7 yard line. On second and goal, QB Virgil Carter tried to hit RB Doug Dressler in the end zone, but Browns LB Billy Andrews jumped the route and intercepted Carter's pass, clinching the game for the Browns. Combined with a New York Jets loss to Oakland, Cleveland's victory clinched a playoff berth.

The Browns weren't so fortunate when they met up with the Bengals in similar circumstances a year later. The December 1973 game was again played in Cincinnati, but this time, it was QB Ken Anderson's turn to shine. The Bengals downed the Browns 34-17, on the strength of the Coffee Achiever's three touchdown passes to Isaac Curtis. The loss pretty much ended Cleveland's playoff hopes for that season, and marked the start of the longest post-season drought in the franchise's history.

The Bengals also iced Cleveland's playoff hopes at the end of the 1979 season, once again at Riverfront Stadium. The 3-12 Bengals upset the 9-6 Browns that day by a score of 16 - 12. True to form, Brian Sipe led a last minute drive that brought the Browns to the Bengals five yard line, but a last second pass to Ricky Feacher in the corner of the end zone was deflected, and the Browns were finished.

The news from Riverfront was a lot better the following season, as the Kardiac Kids clinched the 1980 AFC Central title with a typically heart-stopping 27-24 victory over the Bengals. Don Cockroft kicked a 22 yard field goal to give the Browns the lead with 1:25 left in the game, but the Bengals responded with a drive of their own. Starting from their own 32 yard line, the Bengals moved the ball into Browns territory on the strength of Ken Anderson's arm. The Bengals had the ball on the Browns 32 with 11 seconds left to go. Anderson then completed a 20 yard pass to Steve Kreider, but he was tackled in-bounds at the Cleveland 11 yard line as time expired, and the Browns found themselves in the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons.

In 1982, the Browns once again traveled to Riverfront in December needing a win to keep their playoff hopes alive, and once again, the Bengals had their number. The Bengals beat the Browns that day by a score 23-10, thanks in no small part to four Cleveland turnovers (including a Mike Pruitt fumble deep in Cincinnati territory), a bobbled punt snap that gave the Bengals the ball deep in Cleveland territory, and 10 penalties (including a mind boggling four pass interference penalties).

The Browns played their next to last game of the 1986 season against the Bengals, and the game proved to be a a memorable contest for Browns fans, and one of the truly great performances by those nearly-great Browns teams of the late 1980s. Coming into the game, the Browns were 10-4, while the Bengals were 9-5 and coming off an impressive win over the defending AFC champion New England Patriots. The Bengals rolled up 583 yards against the Patriots and went into the game against Cleveland boasting the AFC's top ranked offense.

The Browns went in to the Bengals' house and, to the delight of Cleveland fans, proceeded to beat them like a rented mule. Cleveland set the tone for the 34-3 rout on the first play of the game, when Bernie Kosar hit Reggie Langhorne for a 66 yard gain. Kevin Mack took the ball in for the Browns first touchdown a few plays later. Just to make sure that Cincinnati got the message that the Browns weren't planning on taking any prisoners that day, Marty sent Chip Banks, Clay Matthews and safety Ray Ellis on a blitz on the Bengals' first offensive play. Cincinnati managed a field goal, but then Bernie responded with a 47 yard touchdown strike to Webster Slaughter, and the Browns were off to the races. With the victory, the Browns clinched their second straight AFC Central championship.

Surprisingly, after playing six late season contests on which playoff berths hinged over 14 years, the 1986 game marked the last time that the Browns and Bengals played a December game that mattered. Well, I guess that I should give partial credit to the 1987 game played here in Cleveland. That game is best remembered for one particular play. In the second quarter, Clay Matthews intercepted Boomer Esiason deep in Browns territory, rambled 36 yards, and then lateraled the ball to Carl "Big Daddy" Hairston, who somehow clomped out another 40 yards before collapsing at the Cincinnati 20 yard line.

Despite the comedy, that game actually proved to be a pivotal point in the 1987 season. The Browns entered that game 7-5, and were coming off back to back losses to the 49ers and the Colts. The team's 38-24 win over the Bengals proved to be the first of three straight wins, which enabled the Browns to finish that strike-shortened year with a 10-5 record and clinch home field for the first round of the playoffs.

Whether you count 1987 or not, I think it's fair to say that there is a lot of late season history between the Browns and the Bengals, and almost all of it has been written in Cincinnati. The Browns have a chance to write another page there tomorrow. Here's hoping they use 1986 as their model.

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