CLEVELAND - Coach Chris Palmer opened up Cleveland's offensive playbook.
It allowed what has been an otherwise unproductive and plain-looking offense by the Browns appear rather explosive and sexy for a while against Philadelphia yesterday at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Yet, a late-season offensive makeover, which included a pair of wide receivers spending some time at quarterback, couldn't mask Cleveland's imperfections.
Once the novelty of seeing Cleveland wideouts Kevin Johnson and Dennis Northcutt play quarterback wore off, the Eagles (9-5) buckled down and rolled to a 35-24 victory to clinch an NFC playoff berth. Two late scoring drives by the Browns made the game look closer than it was.
Yet the Browns (3-12) managed to find some positives.
“Our guys came out and played hard,” Palmer said. “I take my hat off to them. They gave it all they had today. I am proud of how hard they played.
“It was an entertaining game for the fans.”
Well, it was for at least the first half for a sparse crowd. There were plenty of empty seats in a game announced as a sellout of 72,318.
The crowd witnessed the Browns end a string of 71/2 scoreless quarters in which they were outscored 92-0 by scoring 14 in the second quarter. Watching Johnson and Northcutt split time with starter Doug Pederson at quarterback during the two scoring drives made Cleveland's sudden scoring binge that much more interesting.
Johnson completed a 23-yard pass to David Patten on the second play of the Browns' first scoring drive, which covered 74 yards in seven plays. Northcutt rushed for seven yards out of the shotgun on the sixth play of the drive to set up Pederson's nine-yard touchown pass to Patten to tie the score at 7 with 14:20 remaining in the half.
Cleveland took a 14-7 lead following a fumble recovery by the Browns kickoff team. Travis Prentice capped an eight-play drive covering 37 yards with a one-yard touchdown run with 10:13 to play in the half.
Calling on Johnson and Northcutt to help at quarterback came about in part because of a rash of injuries to the Browns quarterbacks. They lost reserve Spergon Wynn earlier in the week, which left them in search of a backup for Pederson. Using Johnson at quarterback out of necessity during practice earlier in the week ultimately led to the Browns trying the two wide receivers as quarterbacks.
“We thought we could surprise them with some of the things we did,” Palmer said. “Our coaches utilized the talent we had available to give us the best chance to win.”
But Cleveland's flirtation with victory didn't last very long as the Eagles went on to score 28 straight points to go up 35-14 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Eagles, who have at least qualified for the playoffs as a wild-card team, eventually made the necessary adjustments to deal with the Browns utilizing Johnson and Northcutt at quarterback.
“We figured them out,” said Philadelphia safety Damon Moore, a former Fostoria High and Ohio State standout. “We knew they couldn't do it the whole game. But you have to give them credit with coming up with the scheme.”
As the Eagles settled down defensively, Philadelphia second-year quarterback Donovan McNabb gradually warmed up the passing game against a Browns secondary that seemed a step slow most of the contest.
McNabb, who completed 23 of 36 passes for career-best 390 yards, threw two of his four touchdown passes in the second quarter to give the Eagles a 21-14 lead at halftime. He teamed with wide receiver Torrance Small on touchdown passes of 24 and 8 yards before intermission. He would also connect with Charles Johnson on touchdown passes of 11 and 38 yards in the second half.
“The timing was definitely there,” said McNabb, who completed passes to seven receivers. “They (receivers) were coming out of their breaks and my job is to put the ball there and let them go get it.”
McNabb, who led the Eagles on two 98-yard scoring drives, is recognized as one of the game's best running quarterbacks. Against Cleveland, he displayed a steady and accurate touch throwing.
Cleveland cornerback Corey Fuller, who was among the group of Browns often picked on by McNabb, left the field frustrated.
“Defensively, we really just didn't get it done,” Fuller said. “If we could have played up to our ability a little bit more I think we would have won.”