BEREA, Ohio - There could have been no more fitting conclusion to the Cleveland Browns' regular season than the goal-line stand that preserved a 24-16 win over Atlanta Sunday and helped send the Browns into the NFL playoffs for the first time since 1994.
Cleveland's defense ranked first in the AFC and No. 2 overall in the league in red zone defense. Opponents scored just 19 touchdowns in 55 possessions inside the Browns' 20-yard line.
“We consider that our turf,” said defensive tackle Gerard Warren.
On Sunday, the Browns will find themselves on the turf at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh for a wild-card playoff game against the Steelers.
Warren expects the defense to be ready for more heroics against a team to which the Browns have dropped a pair of three-point decisions already this season.
“Last Sunday was the best game we've played as a unit,” Warren said. “We made the plays that championship teams make. We came together as a unit. What better time to come together?
“It's a brand new season now. The first 16 [games] are done. Sometimes we played good and sometimes we played bad. There's no place for that now. You can't play bad in the playoffs.”
The Browns' defense posted reasonably good efforts during two losses to Pittsburgh in the regular season.
Cleveland's “bend-don't-break” philosophy allowed a lone touchdown by the Steelers in a 16-13 overtime loss at Pittsburgh in late September. The winning field goal came on fourth down after the Browns had blocked a third-down attempt only to see the Steelers recover the loose ball behind the line of scrimmage.
In a November game at Cleveland Browns Stadium, the home defense surrendered 391 yards in a 23-20 loss, but was on the field for a whopping 42-plus minutes as the Browns' offense generated less than 200 total yards and just nine first downs.
“We always feel we can beat Pittsburgh, but we have to finish one off,” said Warren, a 6-4, 320-pounder who has been in on 54 tackles and four takeaways this season.
Of the latter, his biggest proved to be the turning point of the Atlanta game.
With the Browns trailing 16-10, Atlanta was deep in its own territory when quarterback Michael Vick completed a pass to fullback George Layne. After a modest gain, Layne had the ball stripped by Corey Fuller and apparently recovered by Atlanta tackle Todd Weiner.
But when the officials cleared the pile, Warren came away with the ball, setting up a touchdown pass.
“[Wiener] pretty much had it, but he rolled over and exposed the ball and I reached in and grabbed it,” Warren explained.
By the end of the day, the Browns had grabbed the brass ring, a playoff berth.
“We respect the Steelers a lot,” said Warren, Cleveland's top draft pick in 2001. “We pretty much know what they bring to the table, a power game with big-time receivers. They spread you and pound you at the same. Plus, they always have a lot of gadget plays to keep people off balance. I don't blame them with talents like [Antwaan] Randle El.”
Browns coach Butch Davis prefers not to use the term “gadget plays” when discussing the Steelers.
“It's more a part of that team's personality than gadgets or tricks,” Davis said. “They have a lot of versatility at their skill positions because they have receivers who are ex-quarterbacks.”
Cleveland's defense is led by middle linebacker Earl Holmes, in his first year with the team after a six-season career in Pittsburgh.
Holmes has recorded 88 solo hits and 150 total tackles, seven of them for losses.
“He's such a savvy player,” Davis said, “and the guys in the huddle have such a high respect for him. He doesn't seem to have monster games, but he's so consistent and solid and when a game ends he's usually flirting with double-digit tackles.”
NOTES: The Browns surrendered 320 points, fifth fewest in the AFC this season.... Wide receiver Quincy Morgan ranks second in the NFL with a 17.2-yard average per reception. ... The Cleveland chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America voted rookie running back William Green as the team's player of the year and honored cornerback Corey Fuller with its good guy award. ... The Browns' last playoff appearance also marks the only previous time they've faced the Steelers during the postseason. Pittsburgh won that game 29-9 on Jan. 7, 1995.