We all either remember or have heard of "The Drive." There is no need to go into too much detail here, except to say that the game which ended in such heartbreak was the closest the Browns have ever gotten to the Super Bowl. Yes, they have been to the game before the Super Bowl several times, but never were they within a minute, within one defensive stop, of playing for all the marbles.
The focus here will not be on that game, but on the game the week before, on one of the most thrilling Browns' games in history ... a double-overtime affair against the New York Jets.
But first, a little background.
The 1986 Browns, in Marty Schottenheimer's second full season as head coach, had won 11 of their final 13 games to finish with the most regular season wins in Browns' history, at 12-4, and had won their second straight AFC Central title. Behind the running of Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner, the passing of Bernie Kosar, the receiving of Brian Brennan, Webster Slaughter and Reggie Langhorne, and behind an excellent defense led, in spirit, by Hanford Dixon, Frank Minnifield and Clay Matthews, the Browns were a force to be reckoned with.
Their first playoff opponent, meanwhile, the New York Jets, had gotten in the postseason as a wild card and were coming in off of a 20-point wild card win over Kansas City. The Jets were led by quarterback Ken O'Brien, running back Freeman McNeil and receiver Al Toon, as well as by a defense featuring Mark Gastineau and Joe Klecko which had finished second in the AFC East behind the New England Patriots at 10-6
The two clubs came together in the AFC Divisional Round in Cleveland on January 3rd, 1987.
On a day when the air temperature hovered at freezing and the wind chill was well below, the Jets, behind backup QB Pat Ryan, struck first on a 42-yard scoring toss to Wesley Walker in the first quarter. The Browns came right back to tie things at 7 on a 37-yard touchdown strike from Kosar to Herman Fontenot, and the score remained knotted at the end of one.
The second quarter saw an exchange of field goals, with Mark Moseley giving the Browns their first lead at 10-7 on a 38-yarder, answered later in the quarter by a 46-yard Pat Leahy kick to send the game to halftime tied once again at 10. Cleveland was dominating statistically, but the Jets' defense, bending but not breaking, was holding New York in the game.
The Jets regained the lead in the third quarter on another Leahy field goal, this one from 37 yards, and when there was no other scoring in the quarter, New York led with fifteen minutes to go and the Browns' season was in jeopardy.
Things got worse in the fourth as Freeman McNeil broke loose for a 25-yard touchdown run, and the Jets led with half the quarter gone, 20-10, and some fans in the sellout throng of nearly 80,000 began heading glumly for the exits while the small New York contingent danced in the stands behind what was home plate during baseball season. The Browns needed things to happen, and to happen quickly, or the 12-4 season would be wasted.
The Browns drove down the field and, after a long Brennan catch, drew within three on a Kevin Mack TD run, and the defense stiffened and got the ball back as time wound down. Creeping steadily into scoring range, Cleveland tied the game with less than two minutes to go as Moseley calmly drilled a 22-yarder, and, improbably, the game was tied yet again, at 20, where the score remained at the end of regulation.
In overtime the defenses dominated, but the Browns managed to get close again and set up a virtual chip shot of a field goal attempt ... which failed, shockingly, keeping the Jets alive.
Cleveland's defense would not allow the letdown to unnerve them, and the Browns got the ball back again as the game went into double-overtime and darkness fell over Cleveland.
Cleveland once again got into range, and while Nev Chandler and Doug Dieken, calling the game on the radio, debated whether it might not be wiser to just try to punch the game-winner in rather than risk another field goal attempt, Mark Moseley trotted back out, and calmly split the uprights from 27 yards to end the more than four-hour long thriller and send the Browns into the AFC Championship Game.
So, yes, the 1986 season ended in a gut-wrenching loss, but it was the week before that would also linger in memory. The game the following week continued the pattern begun with Red-Right 88 in the 1980 playoff game against the Raiders, but it was the good things, the miraculous comeback, the 12-4 season, the emergence of Bernie Kosar as a bona fide star, that added a little balm to the bitterness that came later.