By: Steve King, Contributor to ClevelandBrowns.com
Great quarterbacks can carry their teams a long way.
Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar did just that during their time with the Browns, and Jan. 6 was a special day for both.
On that date in 1981, Sipe was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player for the 1980 season. He beat out a player from another AFC Central team, Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell, for the honor, becoming the first Brown to win the award in 15 years, since Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown following his final season in 1965.
Sipe, who owns most of the team’s passing marks, threw for a franchise-record 4,132 yards and set career highs with a 60.8 completion percentage (337-of-554), 30 touchdown passes and a 91.4 quarterback rating (tops in the NFL). He also had six 300-yard games, including 391, then a career best, in a last-second, 26-21 win over the Green Bay Packers at mid-season that served as a launching pad for many of the outstanding performances Sipe and the Browns would turn in down the stretch that year.
With Sipe leading the way, the Browns finished 11-5, tying for a club record (since broken) for most regular-season wins, captured their first Central Division crown in nine years and made their first playoff appearance overall in eight seasons.
Exactly nine years after Sipe received his award, Kosar, who holds most of the club’s passing marks that Sipe does not, had one of the biggest days of his fine career. It was on Jan. 6, 1990 that the product of Youngstown (Ohio) Boardman High School set Browns playoff records with a 68.97 completion percentage (20 of 29) and a 130.10 quarterback rating in a wildly exciting, 34-30 victory over the Buffalo Bills in a 1989 AFC divisional playoff game before 77,706 fans at Cleveland Stadium.
Kosar threw for 251 yards and three TDs, tying for the second-most in team postseason history, and no interceptions.
And the Browns needed all of it.
The Browns, who won their fourth Central title in five years with a 9-6-1 mark and were making their fifth straight playoff appearance overall, and the Bills combined to put on an impressive offensive display. In fact, it looked more like a track meet than a football game, with the teams racing up and down the field on one another. There were five TDs covering 33 yards or more, including 90-, 72- and 52-yarders.
It didn’t take long for the teams to get started. Buffalo, which finished 9-7 and won a balanced AFC East by just a game over the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins (both 8-8), struck first as Jim Kelly threw a 72-yard TD pass to wide receiver Andre Reed in the opening quarter.
The Browns came back later in the quarter to get a 45-yard field goal from Matt Bahr, then took their first lead, 10-7, when Kosar passed 52 yards to wide receiver Webster Slaughter. The Bills came back with Kelly and wideout James Lofton combining for a 33-yard pass, then Cleveland answered that with Kosar’s three-yarder to tight end Ron Middleton, who was used mostly as a blocker in his career, for a 17-14 halftime advantage.
The back-and-forth continued in the third quarter. The Browns struck first with another Kosar-to-Slaughter pass, this one of 44 yards, to widen the lead to 24-14, then Kelly flipped a six-yarder to running back Thurman Thomas.
But Eric Metcalf returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown to put the lead at 10 points again, 31-21, heading into the fourth quarter.
The Browns may have thought they were home free then, but this one was far from being over.
The teams traded field goals to start the fourth quarter, Scott Norwood hitting from 30 yards and Bahr from 47, to make it 34-24.
Buffalo closed it to 34-30 on another short Kelly-to-Thomas pass, of three yards, after which the extra point was missed.
The Bills got the ball back and marched down the field, but were thwarted when Kelly’s short pass over the middle was intercepted by linebacker Clay Matthews at the Cleveland 1 with three seconds left.
It was Kelly’s second interception of the day – the other was by nickel cornerback Mark Harper – but otherwise he had been, like Kosar, outstanding, connecting on 28 of 54 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns.
Kelly and the Bills were reaping the benefits of a decision they made in the second half. To keep up with the Browns’ scoring, the Bills went to a fast-paced, no-huddle attack, and it worked like a charm. It kept the Browns off balance defensively, limiting their ability to make wholesale personnel changes between plays, and allowed Buffalo’s offense to get into a real up-tempo rhythm.
In fact, it worked so well that day that the Bills adopted it as their regular offensive scheme going forward and used it to carry them to a spot in each of the next four Super Bowls.
But on this day, the stage belonged to Kelly’s counterpart, Kosar, just as it had belonged to another great Browns quarterback, Sipe, nine years earlier.
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