CINCINNATI — The Browns have been here before — and they walked off the field celebrating.
On Dec. 14, 1986, the Browns headed down I-71 for the penultimate game of the season in need of a win to clinch a playoff spot. They opened the game with a bomb, cruised to a 34-3 win and claimed the AFC Central Division.
“It’s funny that we’re talking about that again,” said receiver Joe Jurevicius, who watched the 1986 game as an 11-year-old Browns fan. “It’s do-or-die. It’s exciting. Finally, it’s right there in front of us.”
The Browns are 9-5 and would return to the playoffs with a win today at Paul Brown Stadium. If they stumble against the 5-9 Bengals, the Browns would lose control of their playoff destiny and need a Tennessee loss.
The 1986 Browns headed to Cincinnati in a similar situation. They were 10-4 and in search of their second straight division title. The Bengals were 9-5, had won in Cleveland earlier in the year and were in the thick of the playoff race.
“We controlled our own destiny and were not going to let anything get in our way,” former cornerback Hanford Dixon said Friday. “We played one of our best football games.”
Cincinnati’s top-ranked offense was held to 283 yards and no touchdowns. Cleveland’s Bernie Kosar threw for 246 yards and a touchdown and Kevin Mack ran for two touchdowns.
“We were outhit, outmuscled and outplayed,” Bengals coach Sam Wyche said afterward.
Cleveland coach Marty Schottenheimer wasn’t known for aggression on offense, but Kosar hit Reggie Langhorne with a 66-yard pass on the first play. Mack scored three plays later and the Browns never looked back.
“That really did set the tone,” said Dixon, who had one of two interceptions of Boomer Esiason. “We took the same approach Cincinnati’s talking about doing this week. Our mind-set was we were going to play loose and go after them from the start.”
Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer created a mini-stir this week when he said they had nothing to lose and would try to knock the Browns “off the pedestal.” He said Cincinnati owes the Browns one for a 22-14 loss in the 2003 finale that killed the Bengals’ playoff chances.
“From their standpoint, what a better way to come home and try to knock us off,” Browns guard and former Bengal Eric Steinbach said. “Knowing them, they’re going to prepare as hard as they can to knock us off. They’re going to be ready for us.”
While some of the Browns were surprised by Palmer’s comments, they have more important things to worry about.
“We don’t need no extra motivation,” defensive end Robaire Smith said. “Guys know what’s at stake.”
Cincinnati has had the Browns’ number lately, winning five straight before a 51-45 loss in Week 2. As long as Cincinnati has Palmer and receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, it will always be a threat to outscore the opponent.
“First of all, we’ll need to get some stops,” coach Romeo Crennel said. “Then offensively, we need to score points because if it develops into a shootout, usually the guy that has the ball last has the best chance.”
After a month of avoiding talk of the playoffs, the Browns are embracing it. That’s because a win in the “next game” — all the Browns will let themselves think about — will be enough for a wild-card berth and to keep alive hopes of an AFC North title.
“You gotta love it,” center Hank Fraley said. “This is what you’re playing for.”
“It’s a blessing,” linebacker Antwan Peek said. “We just have to take advantage of our opportunity and know this is an important time for us.”
No one appreciates the turnaround this season more than linebacker Andra Davis. He’s one of five players remaining from the 2002 playoff season, lived through four straight losing seasons and had his best game of the year last week in the 8-0 win over the Bills.
“It’s definitely a great feeling,” he said. “We’ve been controlling our own destiny for the last three or four weeks. It’s great situation to be in.”
Dixon said the ’86 team felt the same way, except it carried the burden of expectations this year’s edition doesn’t.
“We were supposed to be good,” Dixon said. “We didn’t know what we’d get from this football team. They’re more of a pleasant surprise.”
Dixon’s team went on to the AFC championship game, losing to the Broncos and “The Drive.” The Browns followed with two more trips to the conference championship in the next three years.
No one can predict what the future holds for the 2007 team, but Dixon thinks its fate today will match that of the ’86 team.
“I really do (think the Browns will win),” he said. “I think they’ve matured a lot.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.