Happy New Year … and many happy returns!
It was certainly that for the Browns on Jan. 1, 2006.
With the help of their return game, the Browns rallied from a 10-point third-quarter deficit with two quick touchdowns to beat the Baltimore Ravens, 20-16, in the 2005 regular-season finale before 69,871 at what was then known as Cleveland Browns Stadium.
The winning points were provided by Dennis Northcutt’s 62-yard punt return for a touchdown with six minutes left in the third quarter. It was the Browns’ second touchdown in a span of 1:34. That one was set up by a long kickoff return.
The win, their second in three games, allowed the Browns to finish 6-10 and tie the Ravens for third place in the AFC North. It also gave the Browns a split in the season series with Baltimore.
In addition, the Browns defeated the Ravens for the second straight season in Cleveland, ironically doing so by scoring 20 points both times.
The first half was a battle of field goals, with all the scoring coming in the second quarter. Former Brown Matt Stover kicked 21- and 43-yarders, then linebacker Adalius Thomas picked up a fumble and raced nine yards for a touchdown to provide a 13-0 lead.
The Browns battled back to make it 13-6 at halftime on a pair of Phil Dawson field goals from 21 and 39 yards.
Stover opened the third quarter with a 31-yard field goal to push the advantage to 10 points, 16-6, with 8:45 remaining.
Then the Browns offense got untracked with a big lift from their special teams.
Joshua Cribbs returned the ensuing kickoff 54 yards to the Baltimore 24. Rookie Charlie Frye, the Willard (Ohio) High School and University of Akron product who had taken over as the starting quarterback late in the season, threw an 18-yard pass to wide receiver Antonio Bryant on the first play. Then two plays later, he went back to Bryant with a six-yarder for a touchdown with 7:34 left, and the Browns had cut the deficit to only 16-13.
The Cleveland defense forced the Ravens to go three plays-and-out on the next possession, and Dave Zastudil, from Bay Village High School in the western Cleveland suburbs and Ohio University, got off a booming 58-yard punt. But as it turned out, he hit the ball so well that he actually outkicked his coverage, giving Northcutt a big lane through which to run on his game-winning touchdown return.
Just two months later, Zastudil signed with the Browns in free agency.
Then it was the defense’s turn to go to work again for the Browns. The unit shut down the Ravens over the last 21 minutes to seal the victory. The final nail in the coffin was applied by free safety Brian Russell, who intercepted a deep Kyle Boller pass and returned it 13 yards to the Cleveland 31 with 58 seconds left.
Frye passed for 199 yards and a touchdown with an interception. Bryant had nine catches for 123 yards.