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Belichick could afford the lighthearted moment. His red-hot

By David CarducciRecord-Courier staff writer Published: December 10, 2001 12:00 AM

Belichick could afford the lighthearted moment. His red-hot New England Patriots opened the day with a half-game advantage over the Cleveland Browns for the sixth and final spot in the playoffs. They extended that lead with a 27-16 victory over the Browns.

Life isn't so cozy for Butch Davis.

The Browns coach returned to Cleveland wondering about a young, battered team that has been its own worst enemy in back-to-back losses that have been devastating to the Browns' playoff hopes.

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"Regardless of inexperience, regardless of guys getting nicked and guys getting hurt, somebody has to step up and play," said Davis. "You can't go out and self self-destruct. You can't go in and watch film (Monday) and say we had 50 good plays and 10-to-15 really rotten, lousy plays on each side of the ball. You can't turn the ball over. You can't give up punt returns for touchdowns and big plays."

Injuries, turnovers and big plays haunted the Browns all afternoon.

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The already injury-riddled Browns lost a pair of starters in the first quarter when H-back Aaron Shea (shoulder) and cornerback Daylon McCutcheon (ankle) suffered game-ending injuries.

As players continued to drop, the Browns' coaches were forced to grab other players on the sideline and teach them how to play completely new positions. Running back Jamel White ended up playing fullback and H-back. Tight end O.J. Santiago saw some time as a fullback. Backup center Shaun O'Hara was even forced into action as a tight end.

Even with the makeshift lineup, the Browns' offense put itself in position to reach the end zone on several drives. Somehow, something always seemed to go wrong.

"I thought I was going to get in the end zone (on a 22-yard catch) in the fourth quarter," said wide receiver Kevin Johnson. "I tried to keep my feet. I got hit, and lost my balance a little bit."

Had Johnson managed to battle his way into the end zone after catching the slant from Tim Couch early in the fourth quarter, the Browns would have pulled into a tie. Johnson's catch still set the Browns up with a first down at the Patriots' 4. Four failed plays later, they were forced to settle for a 22-yard field goal by Phil Dawson, cutting the Patriots' lead to 20-16.

"We've been preaching that since the beginning of the year," said Johnson. "You can't get down there and settle for field goals. That hurts you."

The Browns' offense failed to reach the end zone all day, settling for field goals of 27, 39 and 22 yards by Dawson on each of three drives deep into Patriots' territory.

The most difficult pill to swallow came late in the first quarter after Dennis Northcutt appeared to make a diving catch in the end zone. The 10-yard pass from Couch would have been the perfect cap to an encouraging 16-play drive.

The officials ruled on the field that Northcutt successfully made the catch, but referee Walt Coleman overturned the call after an instant-replay challenge. The Browns disagreed with Coleman's decision.

"I didn't think there was enough reversible evidence," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "(Coleman) said he had a camera angle we didn't see in the press box, and you have to go with what they say."

The Browns disagreed with several calls including a fourth-quarter ruling that Jermaine Wiggins batted the ball before it crossed the goal line, allowing the Patriots to down a punt at the Browns' 1. They also claimed one of Couch's three interceptions was the result of a hold by Patriots' cornerback Terrell Buckley just as Kevin Johnson made a break inside the Patriots' 10-yard line late in the first half.

While the Browns may have had plenty to complain about, they ultimately had nobody to blame but themselves.

Quincy Morgan dropped a fourth-quarter pass that allowed Patriots' defensive end Anthony Pleasant to make a drive-ending interception with the Browns trailing 20-16.

The offensive line's inability to protect Couch (20-of-39 for 244 yards) led to an interception by Tebucky Jones on the game's second play. Pleasant hit Couch just as he released the pass. Seven plays later, the Patriots took a 3-0 lead on Adam Vinatieri's 54-yard field goal

Poor special-teams coverage led to the game's biggest play _ an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown by Troy Brown, giving the Patriots a 17-10 lead with 3:28 left in the second quarter.

The defense did its best to keep the Browns in the game, holding the Patriots to just 81 yards on 33 carries and intercepting Tom Brady (19-of-28 for 218 yards) twice. Corey Fuller returned Brady's first interception 49 yards for the Browns' only touchdown, giving the Browns a brief 10-3 lead with 1:02 left in the first quarter.

Jamir Miller continued his fine season with a pair of sacks.

"It's frustrating because we did things that kept us from winning," said Miller. "Defensively, we had control of the game, but little breakdowns here and there allowed the game to get out of control. We didn't help ourselves to win the game."

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