The Browns had signed middle linebacker Earl Holmes in free agency for his ability to make plays against the run.
And that’s precisely what he did late in the fourth quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 17, 2002 , preserving a 27-20 win at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Browns got their third victory in four games and evened their record at 5-5 as they remained in the AFC playoff hunt.
Phil Dawson kicked a 40-yard field goal to give the Browns a 27-20 lead with 8:10 left in the game, but then Brandon Bennett returned the ensuing kickoff 82 yards to the Cleveland 7.
Corey Dillon’s six-yard run on second down took the ball to 1 and gave the Bengals (1-9) two chances to score the tying touchdown.
Knowing that Dillon, Cincinnati’s best running back, was almost certainly going to carry the ball both times -- if that’s what it took -- the Browns defense dug in.
And Dillon did indeed get the handoff over right end on the next play, but Holmes trailed the flow and made the tackle for no gain.
Not surprisingly, the Bengals, needing just a yard, went for it on fourth down. Not surprisingly, Dillon’s number was dailed up again.
And, not surprisingly, Holmes was ready once more, teaming with strong-side linebacker Darren Hambrick to stop Dillon dead in his tracks for no gain.
The Browns had held the Bengals on downs at the 1, and in doing so had held onto their seven-point lead.
But there was no time for celebrating. With 5:51 remaining, the Browns still had plenty of work to do to secure the victory. Their offense had to drive the ball out of the shadow of their goal line and pick up some first downs so as to use up as much of the clock as possible.
Although the Browns went three plays and out, they got the ball back at their 42 with 3:53 left when Steve Heiden recovered T.J. Houshmandzadeh’s fumbled punt return. When they finally gave up the ball for good, Chris Gardocki’s perfectly-placed 28-yard punt made the Bengals start at the Cincinnati 11 with just 1:41 left. The Bengals got the ball to the Cleveland 24 before time ran out.
Cincinnati started the game impressively, with Jon Kitna throwing a 72-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chad Johnson (Ochocinco) on the third play from scrimmage.
But the Browns answered with two Tim Couch touchdown passes – a 14-yarder to tight end Darnell Sanders and a 15-yarder to wide receiver Andre Davis – to lead 14-7 after one quarter.
Jon Kitna’s three-yard touchdown run tied the score, but the Browns went back on top 17-14 at halftime on Dawson’s 27-yard field goal.
Neil Rackers’ 37-yard field goal, followed by Couch’s 13-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Dennis Northcutt, left Cleveland in front, 24-17, at the end of three quarters.
Rackers’ 31-yarder and Dawson’s 40-yarder to open the fourth quarter made it 27-20 and set the state for Holmes’ defensive heroics.