The question is as constant as the flow of the Ohio River. But Brian Sipe won't get caught in the crosscurrent.

"I'm not commenting on the last play of last season. For six months I have been in a different place mentally because of it," Sipe says.

The play is difficult to forget, even for someone who didn't throw the ball: There are 49 seconds left in the American Football Conference playoff game, Oakland Raiders leading the Cleveland Browns, 14-12. The wind-chill factor is 37 degrees below zero -- a winter afternoon in Cleveland. The Browns have the ball on the Raider 13-yard line; it is second and nine.

Since a field goal will win this game, the run is expected. But kicker Don Cockroft has already missed two field goals and an extra point in the cold air.

So Brian Sipe throws the football to tight end Ozzie Newsome in the end zone. Raider Mike Davis intercepts, and the Raiders take possession of the ball and the game. The howls of the fans join the howls of the wind. It suddenly gets colder in Cleveland.

"That last play," Newsome says now, "was like our version of Cinderella. Once the ball reached the end zone, it turned into a pumpkin at midnight."

Eighteen times during the previous two years, this team had won a game in the last two minutes. This time, though, the Kardiac Kids failed. Their fans felt betrayed.

"We have been asked about that last play," said Brown Coach Sam Rutigliano, "more often than McDonald's has sold hamburgers.

"Everybody dramatized that play. It was like all of the suddent it didn't work for us. We didn't win in the last couple of minutes. All that stuff about the play is over now, as long as we don't get caught up in it ourselves," Rutigliano said.

Newsome added, "People have dwelled on it. But it should be blown over by now. I know Brian is sick of it. For all of the great things he did last year, people are judging him on that one play. It's not fair to him."

Not everyone determined the merit of Sipe's season solely on his 594th pass of the year. The 13th round pick from San Diego State in 1972 was voted the Most Valuable Player of the National Football League by the Pro Football Writers of America and the Associated Press. After all, he did throw 593 other passes.

"He had a marvelous year," Rutigliano said about Sipe, who completed 60.8 percent of his passes and threw for 30 touchdowns.

After so many years of being as mundane as the Cleveland Indians, the Browns are generating excitment.Last year, they were 11-5, champions of the AFC Central Division. It is difficult to remember the last time Cleveland had a winner of playoff caliber without using either an almanac or press book: it was 1972 when Leroy Kelly and Mike Phipps led the Browns to the playoffs, where they were felled in the first round at Miami, 20-14.

"I remember all those years I was in Buffalo, that we used to like playing Cleveland. We always knew we could beat them," said offensive guard Joe DeLamielleure, an eight-year verteran who came to Cleveland last season in a trade for two draft choices. "When I came here, I had forgotten how big football was. These people in Ohio are good fans."

And there are a lot o them. In 1980, the team had three games in which more than 80,000 crammed Municipal Stadium (capacity: 80,322). Cleveland averaged nearly 75,000 per home game. Indeed, for the first time in a long while, the Browns have a following backing them in the stands as well as teams in back of them in the standings.

Times have changed.

"It's here, I'm telling you, it's here," said Newsome. "We have got some cats who can win. This is Cleveland's time again, just like it was in Jim Brown's days."

Unlike Tom Landry or Chuck Noll, Rutigliano is enamored of the possibilities of trades. And, like George Allen, he will take veterans in his attempts to keep the Browns from falling into the red in the standings.

He pulled in Lyle Alzado, the defensive end, from Denver for two draft pickss in 1979. He got running back Terry Miller recently from Buffalo for two draft picks and he got Calvin Hill as a free agent before that.

This will be Hill's 12th NFL season. His career has taken him from two Super Bowls with Dallas, where he spent six years, to 2 1/2 years with the Redskins to Cleveland. Flecks of gray infiltrate his beard nowadays. He is a team leader, even though his spot on the team is tenuous.

"This team right now is in the same kind of situation Dallas was in in 1969 or 1970," said Hill. "They are right before winning the big one. They are close and they know it. Last year -- the playoffs -- was a start."

Indeed, there is a certain quality of certainty here. "It is a quiet confidence," Rutigliano said. As Pittsburgh had aged, and as Houston has lost its coach and quarterback, and as Cincinnati has searched for whatever it is trying to find, Cleveland looks good, even with a defense that ranked 23rd in the league last year. The offense makes up for it.

"That last game of last year was a great letdown," Hill said. "We had won quite a few games like that and the expectations were there that we would do it again. This offseason was good because many of the guys got away from that game and could see more clearly how we could learn from it.

"That play, it will only stay in people's minds until we do something this year to make them forget it," said Hill.