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Published: Monday, 11/23/2009

Who'd have thought it - an NFL classic

DETROIT - After 135 plays and an astounding 911 total

yards and a combined 48 first downs, it came down to one

final play from one yard out

with no time left on the clock.

This was the Cleveland

Browns vs. the Detroit Lions,

two 1-8 teams, an NFL matchup of ugly stepsisters, blacked out

on regional TV with Ford Field one-third empty.

No, the last thing these two teams were expected to produce was the NFL's most exciting - maybe even best - game of the season, complete with a bizarre ending as a hurting Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford made like a one-armed bandit to steal

a 38-37 victory.

"He gave us a little Willis Reed," said Detroit linebacker Larry Foote, digging back to 1970 NBA Finals lore. "No TV today? It's an instant classic, man. Get the NFL Network on the phone. Replay it, baby!"

The Browns won't want to watch. The league's most beleaguered offense led by three touchdowns early and finally got a quality performance from a quarterback. Cleveland had thrown for a paltry 427 yards in its previous five games, but this time Brady Quinn threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns, career bests in both regards, and the Browns never turned the ball over. But they were not mistake-free.

With Detroit having used its final timeout and with the 2:00 warning having come and gone, the Browns, leading 37-31, faced third-and-five at their own 42. A running play, even if stopped short of a first down, would have led to about 40 seconds running off the clock before a punt snap. But the coaches sent in a pass play, and Detroit brought some heat, and Quinn's attempt was off the mark and it stopped the clock.

Coach Eric Mangini defended the call later, but since it is basically indefensible, we won't waste any space on that. It gave the Lions the ball with 1:46 to play and, using mostly short catch-and-runs and clock-stopping spikes, they crowded together nine plays and moved 56 yards to the Cleveland 32 and still had eight seconds left.

Stafford scrambled all over the place, ducking one big hit, reversing his field, and getting a huge block from Kevin Smith to keep the play alive. Finally, a split second before being pounded into the turf by Cleveland's C.J. Mosley, Stafford saw Calvin Johnson flash across the back of the end zone and let the ball fly. Not only was it incomplete, it ricocheted to Brodney Pool for an apparent interception. The clock said 0:00.

"The only thing on my mind was getting the ball, and when I didn't get the ball, I thought it was the end of the game," Johnson said. "Then I saw the flags down, and I knew the ball was coming all the way down and we were going to have one shot."

Browns defensive back Hank Poteat was called for pass interference - bordering on mugging - in the end zone. The ball was placed at the 1-yard line. But the drama was just beginning because Stafford had been pretty badly hurt - it was his left shoulder - on the previous play. He was helped off the field, and Daunte Culpepper, the backup, ran into the huddle for the single untimed play from one yard out.

The Browns called time. "We wanted to see their formation, how their personnel lined up," Mangini said.

Stafford heard the word "timeout" over the P.A. system and, knowing it would allow him to re-enter, decided his day wasn't done.

"The team doctors said 'no,' and I said 'yes.' Somebody helped me get up, and I told [offensive coordinator Scott] Linehan I could make one throw," Stafford said. "It didn't feel good, but I didn't care. It was one play, one snap, and one try to throw the TD."

Stafford already had set Lions rookie records with 421 yards and four TD passes. With winning or losing hinging on one play, he spotted fellow rookie Brandon Pettigrew, and after a catch that was even better than the throw Stafford's totals changed to 422 yards and five TD passes. Jason Hanson did what he always does, splitting the uprights with an extra point, and the Lions won a stunner.

"Matt made a great play to finish the game," said Lions coach Jim Schwartz, "but probably his best play was eluding four team doctors. I mean, he was lying on his back when Cleveland took the timeout and when he popped up all the team doctors said, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa.' I asked them, 'What does he have,' and they didn't even know yet. Matt said he was ready, and I said, 'OK, go.' I mean, he could walk."

Seconds later, the Browns walked off the field with looks of utter disbelief. What else can happen to a team that has seemed cursed for the good part of a decade? An emotional outcome that lightens the load for one team might also finish off the other.

The '09 Browns had been bad on offense, far better on defense, but they can't seem to put anything together.

"I'm sick the way this thing ended," Mangini said. "We put a lot of points on the board, something we haven't been able to do, but we weren't able to slow [Detroit] down. Still, finishing the way it did …"

Well, that was just fine with Pettigrew, the Lions' young tight end who has made some plays, missed some plays, and yesterday, in his own words, "made the best play. I don't know what the expectations were, but this had to be the most exciting game in the league."

And who would have imagined the Lions and Browns would be the ones to produce it?

Contact Blade sports columnist

Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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