DENVER - If you freeze the play at just the right time, you can imagine it as the most exciting moment in franchise history. There was Earnest Byner, ball in his right hand, big hole in front of him, about to tie the AFC Championship game at 38.
This was the Browns' destiny. Last year, it was Cleveland with the 7-point lead late in the fourth quarter, playing at home, then watching John Elway drive down the field to tie the game. That became forever known as "The Drive," and Cleveland fans were still bitter about it.
Now, the tables were turned. It was the Broncos who had the 7-point lead late in the fourth quarter, playing at home. It was the Browns who drove down the field, putting themselves in position to tie the game. Then they called that handoff to Byner, who got the ball cleanly and started running off-tackle left. It looked like he would walk in ...
In the immediate years preceding the Super Bowl, the Browns were an NFL dynasty. They won four straight AAFL championships, then won four titles in 14 years after joining the NFL. The Browns last NFL title was in 1964, the year before the Super Bowl was instituted. Bad luck there. Twice more in the 1960s, they lost with the Super Bowl just a game away. Then ... nothing. No playoff wins for 16 years as they tried to return to the top. They finally broke through in 1986, before Elway and The Drive knocked them away. This year, it would finally happen.
Byner looked like he was coming in clean, but Broncos defensive back Jeremiah Castille had a shot at him. Castille reached in and hit the ball, jarring it loose, the fell on the ball at the 2-yard line. The Browns were devastated. Their fans went catatonic. Two yards from the goal line, and the ball was lost. Their best chance at a Super Bowl, and they came up 2 yards short.
The Broncos gave the Browns an intentional safety, cutting their lead to 38-33, but there wasn't enough time left for the Browns to mount a touchdown drive. They would be sitting out the Super Bowl again. Two years later, they lost to the Broncos in the AFC championship a third time. They've never been as close to the Super Bowl since.
The next year, when the Browns released their team media guide, people took notice of the cover. At first, it didn't seem odd - it was just a stylized version of a photograph of quarterback Bernie Kosar handing off to Byner. But at closer look, people came to a stunning realization: the picture was taken moments before The Fumble. The Browns had chosen the moment immediately before the most painful turnover in team history to highlight their upcoming season.
In a way, it made sense - a reminder of how close they came to their goals, a way to inspire the team to do just a little bit more. In retrospect, it's haunting, a picture captured at the absolute peak of the franchise, the moment the Browns started to sink.
HONORABLE MENTION -
January 17, 1999: MINNEAPOLIS - I don't know why everybody blames Gary Anderson. I suppose it makes sense for fans of poetic irony - the kicker that hadn't missed all season missing the kick that would have clinched a berth in the Super Bowl. But he just became a convenient scapegoat. After all, when that kick sailed wide left, the Vikings still had a 7-point lead, just over a minute to play. The Falcons shouldn't have had time to drive for a tying touchdown. And they wouldn't have had time if Robert Smith, remembering his knee injury from a couple years before, hadn't run out of bounds untouched three times on that final drive. Stay in bounds once, Robert, and the Falcons certainly don't have time to tie the game. And everybody always forgets that a) the Vikings had 30 seconds left to try to break the tie at the end of regulation and took a knee and b) they got the ball first in overtime but couldn't score. It's just ... it's just ... I don't want to talk about it any more. It's stupid....