EDITOR’S NOTE: In honor of this being the 30th anniversary of the 1980 Kardiac Kids, the following is the 17th in a series chronicling the Browns games that season. This one focuses on the Week 17 AFC divisional playoffs contest against the Oakland Raiders on January 4, 1981 at Cleveland.
It was early January on the shores of Lake Erie, and it was much colder than normal at this time of year.
The Browns don’t officially keep track of such things, but with a temperature of zero degrees and a wind-chill factor of minus-37 at kickoff, the 1980 AFC divisional playoff contest against the Oakland Raiders at Cleveland Stadium is believed to the coldest home game the team has ever played.
Still, it didn’t dissuade anyone in Northeast Ohio. The Kardiac Kids Browns were a hot topic in Cleveland. To most, they were the only topic as they got ready to play their first home playoff game in nine years.
For the two weeks from the end of the regular season to the day of the Raiders game, you couldn’t go anywhere in the region without seeing some semblance of the fans’ fervent love for the Browns -- more so than usual. Signs in the windows of homes and office buildings, assorted holiday decorations with a strictly Browns flavor and the constant playing of a catchy, oh, so popular song produced locally, “The 12 Days of a Cleveland Browns Christmas.”
The Stadium was electric, as fans roared from early in pre-game warm-ups to the final seconds of the game. And for those watching at home on television, the emotion was just as apparent.
Nothing could stop the Browns. This was their year to finally get to the Super Bowl.
But something did stop the Browns -- fate. Just when it appeared they were headed for another heart-stopping victory, Oakland safety Mike Davis intercepted a Brian Sipe pass in the end zone with 41 seconds left, sealing a 14-12 Raiders victory that chilled the Browns and their fans right down to the bone.
The defenses dominated the game for most of the day, but especially early. After a scoreless quarter and a half, Browns cornerback Ron Bolton intercepted a Jim Plunkett pass intended for wide receiver Wes Chandler and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown with 6:10 left in the first half. It was the first interception the Browns returned for a score all season.
But Don Cockroft’s extra-point attempt was blocked, keeping the score at 6-0.
That finally opened the door for the offenses, as the Raiders took the ensuing kickoff and marched 64 yards in 14 plays for a touchdown. The score came on Mark van Eeghen’s one-yard run on third down with 18 seconds remaining in the half.
Chris Bahr, the brother of kicker Matt Bahr, who would begin a nine-year stay with the Browns in 1981, booted the extra point to give Oakland a 7-6 advantage.
Cleveland got as far as the Oakland 12 at the start of third quarter, but had to settle for Cockroft’s 30-yard field goal that provided a 9-7 lead.
After moving to the Oakland 12 again late in the third quarter, Cockroft kicked a 29-yard field goal and the Browns were up 12-7.
Then, the Raiders drove 80 yards in 12 plays to get another one-yard van Eeghen touchdown run on third down. Bahr’s conversion kick made it 14-12 with 9:22 left in the game.
It appeared the Raiders were going to add to that least when they recovered a Sipe fumble at the Cleveland 24 with 4:26 left.
It looked more so like that was going to happen when, following an eight-yard van Eeghen run, Oakland moved to a third-and-one situation at the 15. But the Cleveland defense, which hadn’t gotten much praise all year, stopped the Raiders cold, stuffing van Eeghen for no gain two straight times.
The Browns needed just a field goal to win it and had the ball back, but they were backed up to their own 15 and there was just 2:22 left.
On the second play, Sipe passed 29 yards to tight end Ozzie Newsome to the Cleveland 44. Sipe and wide receiver Reggie Rucker couldn’t make a connection on a third-and-10 pass from that point, but the Browns caught a break when cornerback Dwayne O’Steen was called for holding, giving them a first down at the Cleveland 49 with 1:19 left.
Sipe then passed 23 yards to running back Greg Pruitt down the left sideline on the next play to the Oakland 28, and when Mike Pruitt ran 14 yards to the 14 two plays later, the Browns called timeout with 56 seconds left.
The Browns came out of the timeout and ran Mike Pruitt for a yard into the middle of the field to the 13, presumably to set up Cockroft for the game-winning kick, and called timeout once again to talk things over with 49 seconds remaining.
Then came a play that is still debated three decades later.
Rutigliano called for pass play Red Right 88, but told Sipe to “throw it to the blond in the first row” if no one was open. If Sipe had to waste the play, then, the Browns would run the ball into the middle of the line on third down and send Cockroft in to kick the field goal on fourth down.
Sipe saw Newsome breaking into the open going from right to left in the end zone, but didn’t see Davis hanging back there. When Sipe threw the ball, Davis stepped in to grab it, and as he did, ending the game and the Browns season, the crowd at the Stadium, which had been roaring moments before, suddenly fell so silent that you could have heard a pin drop.
No win. No Super Bowl. What had happened so many times all season -- the Browns pulling out a win in the waning moments -- didn’t happen.