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Browns, Bills clash has playoff feel in regular season

I'm a little uneasy making this comparison, mainly because we're talking about a playoff game versus a regular-season game.

To be certain, some regular-season games can have a playoff-like feel, particularly if the stakes are such that a win gets a team into the postseason or a loss means watching the playoffs on TV.

The Week 15 clash between the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills at Cleveland Browns Stadium has such a feel.

With a victory and some help, the Browns can clinch their first playoff spot since 2002. With a win, the Bills would take a huge step toward securing their first postseason berth since 1999; with a loss, they can count on another year of being shut out of the championship chase.

So it is not a reach to say that this easily is the biggest Bills-Browns game since their classic, divisional-round playoff shootout -- won by the Browns, 34-30 -- on Jan. 6, 1990, at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium.

I'm inclined to take the comparison up another notch, to suggest that Sunday's game very well could resemble the one these teams played nearly 18 years ago. That's where I struggle the most with the comparison, because I was at that game. For many reasons it ranks among the most memorable ever played.

For one, it was incredibly exciting, as both teams exchanged big offensive plays almost at will. It wasn't the kind of game one would have expected on a cold, January afternoon on one of the all-time worst surfaces the NFL has ever seen. Consider this description from former BillsPro Bowl nose tackle Fred Smerlas: "It's supposed to have natural turf, but there's nothing natural about finding craters and sand everywhere you step -- unless you're an astronaut. There isn't a single blade of grass anywhere. It's dirt, with a little hay sprinkled on top, spray-painted green. It smelled like a barn."

To give you a sense of what sort of day it was for the defenses, at one point late in the game, Bud Carson, Cleveland's renowned defensive coordinator, yanked off his headset and slammed it to the ground in frustration.

Another reason the game was so unforgettable was that it marked a coming-out party of sorts for Jim Kelly and what would become one of the most dynamic offensive machines the NFL has ever seen. With 2:41 left, and Buffalo taking over at its own 26 trailing 34-30, Kelly would be calling his own plays from a no-huddle offense. From that moment forward, the famed "K-Gun," a hurry-up attack that scored quickly and often while preventing defenses from substituting, would serve as the Bills' scheme from the start of the game rather than just late in the half or when the Bills trailed in the fourth quarter.

Kelly continually exploited the single coverage of the Browns' linebackers matched up against running backs Ronnie Harmon and Thurman Thomas. He also converted a pair of fourth downs, the second on a 10-yard completion to Andre Reed to the Cleveland 22-yard line. After connecting with Thomas to the 11, Kelly spiked the ball to stop the clock at 14 seconds.

He then called a flag pattern to Harmon to the corner of the end zone. As Kelly said at the time, "He runs that pattern better than anybody in the league, and he catches that pass more often than anybody in the league." Kelly was certain Harmon would make yet another reception on the play as he ran across the back of the end zone wide open. Kelly lofted the throw to his left. The ball hit Harmon right in the hands ... and bounced away.

Still time for one more play. This time, Kelly, looking for Thomas, threw toward the middle of the end zone. This time, linebacker Clay Matthews was there for the interception, sending the Bills home for the offseason and the Browns to the AFC Championship Game (where they would suffer another heartbreaking loss to Denver).

A dramatic finish to an extraordinary game. Hard to duplicate? Absolutely. Yet the more I look at the current Browns and Bills teams, the more I am convinced they are capable of staging a performance on a par with that epic playoff battle.

The Browns have one of the more explosive passing games in the NFL, and they should have their share of success against a defense that ranks 30th overall and 28th against the pass.

Explosive isn't exactly a word one would use to describe Buffalo's offense or its passing attack, both of which rank 28th in the league. But as the Bills demonstrated in last Sunday's 38-17 victory over Miami, they can move the ball effectively and pile up points against a weak defense. And the Browns' defense -- ranking dead-last in the NFL in total yards allowed (28th against the run and 30th against the pass) -- is statistically much weaker than that of the winless Dolphins.

Here's where it gets to be a little bit of a stretch, though. The stars of that playoff game were the quarterbacks -- Kelly, a Hall-of-Famer, for the Bills, and Bernie Kosar for the Browns. The current quarterbacks for Cleveland and Buffalo have been impressive in their own right, but I'm not ready to mention Derek Anderson and Trent Edwards in the same sentence as their far more accomplished predecessors. Although Anderson is in his third NFL season, 12 of his 15 career starts have come this year. Edwards, as a rookie, has started all of six games.

Of the two, only Anderson has actually been involved in an NFL shootout. He's been in several of them, in fact, and has come out on top in most.

This could be another. And the outcome could go a long way toward defining the direction of both franchises, as was the case nearly 18 years ago.

"Even though we lost," Kelly said, "I thought a lot of good came out of that game. I thought it was a good confidence builder, not only for myself but for the entire team. Sometimes all it takes is one game to turn a team around, and I felt us making the turn that day ... who knows how far we would have gone had we won?"

This is how far the Bills went after the loss: To four consecutive Super Bowls.

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