The 1986 season will forever hold a special place in the hearts of Browns fans.
Led by quarterback Bernie Kosar, who wanted to come to Cleveland when it seemed like no one else did, had led the Browns to a 12-4 record during the season, including the Browns’ first-ever win against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium.
The Browns entered the playoffs with home-field advantage in the AFC and visions of a late-January trip to Pasadena, Calif., for the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance.
There were just a few things standing in the way of the Browns and Southern California.
For starters, the Browns had not won a playoff game since beating Dallas, 38-14, following the 1969 season.
The second obstacle were the New York Jets, who had staggered into the playoffs fresh off a five-game losing streak, but had regained some of their mojo by defeating Kansas City in the Wild Card game.
What transpired on the painted dirt of Municipal Stadium on Jan. 3, 1987, was third-longest playoff game in NFL history and, if perhaps not the most well-played game, is one of the most memorable in franchise history.
The Jets opened the scoring on a 42-yard flea-flicker touchdown pass from Pat Ryan to Wesley Walker. The Browns countered with their own touchdown drive as Bernie Kosar hit Hermon Fontenot with a 37-yard touchdown pass.
The teams would finish the first quarter tied at 7-7 and head into the half tied at 10-10. The Jets would take a 13-10 lead into the fourth quarter, which is where the game turned memorable.
Mark Mosely missed a field goal and Kosar threw an interception in the end zone, denying the Browns the opportunity to take the lead. But it was Kosar’s second interception of the day that seemingly sealed the Browns’ fate.
Following the turnover, Jets’ running back Freeman McNeil broke through the defense for a 25-yard touchdown running, putting the Jets up by 10 and the Browns just 4:14 away from another soul-crushing defeat.
Three plays into their next offensive possession, the Browns faced a second-and-24 situation from their own 17-yard line. Kosar’s pass fell incomplete, but it was on that play that New York defensive lineman Mark Gastineau earned a place on the Christmas card list of every Browns’ for all of eternity.
Gastineau was flagged for roughing the passer, giving the Browns and Kosar new life.
Kosar went on to complete five passes on what turned into a touchdown drive, with the Browns drawing within three points after Kevin Mack’s one-yard touchdown run.
While the Jets recovered the ensuing onside kick, the Browns defense forced a three-and-out and after a Dave Jennings’ punt, Cleveland took over on its own 32-yard line with no timeouts and just 53 seconds remaining between overtime or the end of the season.
Kosar struck quickly, drawing a pass interference penalty on a pass over the middle intended for Brian Brennan, then hitting Webster Slaughter for a 37-yard gain to the Jets’ five-yard line. With the clock ticking, Kosar tried to win the game with a pass in the end zone that was almost intercepted by cornerback Russell Carter.
Having narrowly avoided a repeat of the Red Right 88 game against Oakland in the 1980 playoffs, Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer called on Mosley, who made a 22-yard field goal to inexplicably send the game into overtime.
The Browns dominated the Jets in overtime, holding New York to just 12 total yards of offense and one first down in three possessions, but continually failed to cash in on offense as the game dragged into the second overtime. Finally, four hours and 11 minutes after the game had kicked off, Mosley ended it with a 27-yard field goal.
“I think we all had an opportunity to experience one of the finest games in the history of the sport,” Schottenheimer said in Classic Browns. “I have never experienced or seen a comeback like that. After it was over, in the locker room, I told the players to listen. You could still hear the people cheering for us.” – TM
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