- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
- 0 Shares
BALTIMORE -- Pro football history is filled with quirky plays.
The Immaculate Reception.
The Tuck Play.
The Holy Roller.
The Browns' playoff chances were about to take a hit and regular time was about to expire when Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson launched a 51-yard field goal attempt to tie the score. Incredibly, the ball hit the left upright, banked down and hit a few inches on the top of the curved support bar on the back of the goal post, then bounced back to the field. An official signaled the field goal attempt was no good.
The game was over.
Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel congratulated Baltimore coach Brian Billick.
Browns and Ravens players held their postgame prayer before heading to the locker room.
But an episode of "The Twilight Zone" was about to break out.
Referee Pete Morelli had announced over the public address system that he would "take a look at this play," then went to the review booth and manned the headphones to replay assistant Howard Slavin. According to league spokesman Greg Aiello, Slavin told Morelli he couldn't show him the kick because field goals are not reviewable under the rules.
Morelli proceeded to further discuss the kick with his crew. Aiello said one of the back judges, Keith Ferguson, "felt more strongly" that the ball had crossed through the goal posts. Morelli based his reversal on Ferguson's opinion. The kick was good.
How an official positioned in front of the goal post could see the ball hit the curved support bar on the back of the goal post without benefit of instant replay is a topic that will be debated for days.
Play resumed, and the Browns won in overtime on a 33-yard field goal by Dawson.
"I wouldn't begin to try to explain what happened at the end of the game,'' Billick said. "I'll leave that to those who think they know it better. So you can save your questions with regards to it, because I have no clue what just happened in terms of the ruling and why the officials called it the way they did. I'm sure they'll explain it, and I'll get the appropriate memo letter in a week.''
Morelli, one of the league's best referees, had to moderate this circus and determine the fates of two seasons. A call for the Ravens (4-6) might have saved their season. The call for the Browns (6-4) made them a Cinderella candidate for the wild card.
Dawson looked up at the M&T Bank Stadium scoreboard and saw the JumboTron replay version, which showed the ball hitting the curved support bar in back of the goal post.
"We had some people under the goal post that were screaming at the top of their lungs that it had hit the part that connects the crossbars,'' said Dawson, who admitted going toward the conference of officials and pleading his case. "I threw in my two cents in there. But I don't know if they were necessarily listening. I know they all got together and discussed what they saw. And then they went and watched it on the replay, and it was pretty obvious that the ball did indeed hit the bar.''
Referring to the initial call, Morelli told a pool reporter, "It was a ruling by one of the officials. The other official informed me that the ball hit the back of the extension of the goal post. .... We determined that was what it struck. Therefore, it made the field goal good."
He insisted he didn't use instant replay.
In the first half, the entire replay system crashed. Billick challenged a reception by the Browns' Tim Carter on a third-and-9 from the Ravens' 24. Carter's second foot debatably might not have been in bounds for the 10-yard reception. The Browns led 10-7, and Billick felt a successful challenge would force Dawson to kick a 42-yard field goal.
Morelli went under the replay machine hood, but no pictures were sent to the field. With no evidence to refute the call -- which was correct -- Morelli had to announce the replay system had suffered a breakdown. Until the system was rebooted, the replay people went to an alternate system. By halftime, the main system was back online.
"I saw on the big screen that Tim made a good catch, so I thought we were all right because you can't overturn anything without evidence,'' Browns quarterback Derek Anderson said.
In overtime, Billick inexplicably decided to kick to Josh Cribbs, who had seven returns Sunday for 245 yards, a 35-yard average. Cribbs took the kickoff and raced to the Browns' 41. Anderson and Jamal Lewis moved the ball to the Ravens' 16, and Dawson hit the winning field goal.
"I've seen the ups and downs," Crennel said. "They can go up and down on one play. I have been in a lot of games that have gone down the wire. You're disappointed when you think you can lose and elated to get another chance. I've never seen anything like this. There's a first time for everything. It was crazy."
Morelli got it right, and the Browns still have a chance to be the wildest of the AFC wild cards.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
22hMel Kiper Jr.
2dEric D. Williams