Browns 24, Falcons 16
-- They won and waited. And then, the Cleveland Browns were forced to wait some more before they could celebrate.
After taking nearly every game this season down to the final, excruciating seconds, the Browns -- and their playoff chances -- had to survive three hours of sudden death.
Could there have been any other way?
Rookie William Green ran for 178 yards and scored on a 64-yard touchdown run with 3 minutes 53 seconds left today, helping the Browns to a 24-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
However, Cleveland's first postseason appearance since 1994 wasn't secured until hours later, when the New York Jets beat Green Bay.
"This is just how our season has been," said wide receiver Quincy Morgan. "Everything hanging from a thread."
It took four years for the Browns to go from expansion to the playoffs. Along the way, the team endured 2-14 and 3-13 seasons, a head coaching change and more thrilling finishes than any team in the league.
"Just goes to show that you can never give up," wide receiver Kevin Johnson said. "Look at all the obstacles we overcame, losing a game on a helmet throw. We came through when it counted most."
Also appropriate for this crazy NFL season, the Falcons lost and made it back to the playoffs anyway.
Atlanta (9-6-1) landed one of the six NFC playoff berths as a wild card when New Orleans lost at home to Carolina. Atlanta last appeared in the postseason in 1998, when it went to the Super Bowl.
"I'm disappointed that we didn't get the job done ourselves," Falcons Coach Dan Reeves said.
"I'm really, really, really down," Atlanta tight end Alge Crumpler said. "Maybe a lot of guys are. I feel like we backed into these playoffs."
Browns linebacker Earl Holmes stopped Warrick Dunn at the 1 on a fourth-and-goal play with 23 seconds left, and the Browns (9-7) ran out the clock for their biggest win since returning to the league.
They did it without quarterback Tim Couch, who broke his right leg in the first half, and won another gut-wrenching game despite committing four turnovers.
"This game was a microcosm of the whole season," Browns Coach Butch Davis said. "What can you say?"
When the final seconds ticked off, the Browns -- led by linebacker Dwayne Rudd, whose impulsive helmet toss in Week 1 cost Cleveland a win -- ran to midfield and danced in celebration on the Browns' orange helmet logo as 73,528 fans rocked Browns Stadium.
"I think we're living our dream right now," Green said.
Remember, though, these are the 2002 Browns, and absolutely nothing is easy.
"It's been a roller coaster of a season, and the ride hasn't stopped," said Kelly Holcomb, who replaced Couch.
Cleveland's players went to the locker room having done all they could, but they had to wait for the final score from New England, where the Miami Dolphins and Patriots went to overtime.
When Adam Vinatieri's 35-yard field goal went through early in overtime to give the Patriots a 27-24 win, it gave the Browns a chance. Then, their last hope hinged on the Jets beating the Packers.
"Brutal," Browns offensive lineman Ryan Tucker said at the thought of having to watch the late game.
But at 7:16 p.m., the Browns officially became a playoff team when the Jets drubbed the Packers, 42-17.
Cleveland will play the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round.