When the defensive team of the Cleveland Browns gathered in the locker room at halftime of last Saturday's AFC playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts, inside linebacker Eddie Johnson was fuming. Forty seconds before the gun, the Dawg Defense—rated No. 1 in the conference during the regular season—had rolled over and played dead. Clay Matthews, the Browns' Pro Bowl outside linebacker, had let Colts running back Eric Dickerson easily grab a 19-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jack Trudeau to tie the score at 14-14.
"We have to take control of this game, or we're going to get our butts kicked," Johnson bellowed. "To let them waltz down that field and tie the score is unacceptable!"
One by one, Johnson looked the Dawgs in the eye and continued, "I'm sick and tired of being in the playoffs—getting close to the Super Bowl—but not getting there. I can't go through that again."
Johnson's tirade put the bite back into the Dawgs. They tore back onto the field and chewed up Dickerson and the Colts. Cleveland won 38-21, and—aptly enough—Johnson played a pivotal role in turning the game around.
January 18, 1988
Indianapolis started the third quarter with the ball at its own 15 and marched effortlessly up the field. A six-yard pass to Matt Bouza. A nine-yard screen to Dickerson. A 15-yarder to running back Albert Bentley and soon the Colts were deep in Cleveland territory, looking as if they could strike at will.
Then, on second and 14 from the Browns' 20, Trudeau dropped back to pass and was surprised by Johnson, crashing through a gap in the Indianapolis line. As Trudeau followed through, Johnson hit his right arm, deflecting the ball into the hands of Cleveland's free safety Felix Wright. "I'd called a corner route to [tight end] Pat Beach," Trudeau would say later. "He was covered, so I decided to throw the ball away. I let it go, hoping nobody would knock it down. What a nightmare."
Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar calmly trotted onto the field. This season, only his third in the NFL, Kosar was rated the second-best passer in the league, behind San Francisco's Joe Montana. He's only 24, but he's already one of the best at reading defenses.
In the first half, for instance, Kosar noticed that the Colts were using a linebacker to cover tight end Ozzie Newsome whenever he lined up on the right side. So at halftime, Kosar talked with Newsome about taking advantage of his greater speed. "Bernie told me I was a viable receiver in that situation," said Newsome after the game. "He said the first time we got the ball, we'd test them to see if they'd still cover me that way."
They did. On first down from the Cleveland 14, Newsome beat Indy linebacker Cliff Odom for a nine-yard reception. Kosar went to Newsome twice more—for 18 and 16 yards—and the Browns were cooking.
On third and one at the Colts' two, it was Kosar's turn to give a pep talk. "BK looked at us in the huddle and called us a championship team," said running back Earnest Byner. "He said, 'To show the world what kind of character we have, we must crunch these guys—right now!' "
On the ensuing play, Byner took the handoff from Kosar and plowed into the end zone. Cleveland 21, Indianapolis 14.
And, thanks to Byner, the Browns kept right on crunching the Colts. Byner, who led the Browns in receptions this season with 52, was forced to carry the ground game when running back Kevin Mack went to the bench in the first quarter with a stomach virus. For the afternoon, Byner rushed 23 times for 122 yards. He also pulled down four passes for 36 yards and a touchdown.
The Dawgs forced Indianapolis to punt on its next two series. They mauled Dickerson, who rushed for only 50 yards on 15 attempts on the day—his longest run was 14 yards—but caught seven passes for 65 yards. The Browns took those two punts and drove for a 22-yard Matt Bahr field goal and a two-yard TD pass from Kosar to Brian Brennan. And that was the game, although each team did score another touchdown.
"We answered one challenge after another most of the day," said Colts coach Ron Meyer. "When we couldn't stop Kosar and their offense, it was disastrous." And the Dawgs? "I don't care what the stats say," said Dickerson. "They have the best defense in the NFL. It's the best defense I've played against in a few years."
Indianapolis, which finished 9-7 overall, was making its first playoff appearance since 1977, when the franchise was still in Baltimore. Much of the credit for the Colts' surprising turnaround goes to Meyer, who took over as head coach in 1986, when the team's record was 0-13, and startled everyone by winning the last three games of the season.
Meyer stressed a collegiate approach with his young team. Loose, rah-rah and upbeat, complete with awarding game balls and Thursday afternoon pizza-and-beer parties in the locker room. He also had a knack for making optimistic predictions, including an AFC East title for his team this season. "Everything came true," said tackle Chris Hinton. At 26, Hinton, a Northwestern graduate, was experiencing his first winning season since his senior year at Chicago's Phillips High. "I want to ask Ron if he made a deal with the devil."
Cleveland's fans were thinking positive, too. Last week, several downtown buildings had GO BROWNS spelled out in huge orange letters. A bronze statue in front of the Federal Reserve Bank was adorned with an orange helmet and a giant white milkbone. Radio stations blared songs about the Browns, including the No. 1 hit, Bernie Bernie by The Bleacher Bums, sung to the tune of Louie Louie.
Dawg-mania gripped the city. Mayor George Voinovich declared Friday to be Browns Backers Day and paraded around town wearing an orange dog snout and brown basset-hound ears. A reporter on Cleveland's Channel 3 read the 7:25 a.m. news in a Browns sweater and cap, and 600 children at Captain Arthur Roth Elementary School attended classes in handmade paper headbands with floppy ears.
"Last year, all the hype caught us off-guard," Kosar said. "We had to spend too much time blocking out the periphery. We're oblivious to it now."
That allows the Browns to focus on the task at hand—finally getting to the Super Bowl. "Our goal is to win it," Clay Matthews said after beating the Colts. "Anything less and the season will have been for naught."