Testaverde Dawg-gone good in win


CLEVELAND -- Leaving the field, the "other quarterback" signed autographs. He posed for pictures. He did television interviews.

And finally, only seconds before he entered the tunnel to leave Cleveland Stadium, Vinny Testaverde looked up from under his baseball cap and smiled at the crowd, many of them pumping their fists in triumph.

This was the day Testaverde finally got the Dawgs off his back.

Testaverde, in his first playoff game, shed his reputation of not being able to win big games by completing 20 of 30 passes for 268 yards and a touchdown, as the Cleveland Browns defeated the New England Patriots, 20-13, in an AFC wild-card game before a crowd of 77,452.

As the Browns walked off the field, they were greeted with chants of "We want Pittsburgh! We want Pittsburgh!" They'll get the top-seeded Steelers, who beat them twice during the regular season, Saturday afternoon in an AFC semifinal.

Testaverde hung around to savor the moment and his performance. At least for a day, he had silenced critics who said he had no touch, couldn't throw long and had little mobility.

Testaverde had a nice, soft touch on a 5-yard touchdown pass to Mark Carrier in the second quarter. He also threw delicate, floating passes of 27, 23, 20 and 36 yards. Mobility? Testaverde frequently rolled to his right with ease to escape the Patriots' rush, and scrambled twice for gains of 9 and 5 yards on the Browns' first touchdown drive.

In the process, Testaverde out-dueled the league's new top gun, Drew Bledsoe, who fizzled under pressure at times with a 21-for-50, three-interception performance that netted 235 passing yards.

"This was the biggest game of my career," said Testaverde. "I just didn't want to make any mistakes that hurt our team. I just wanted to go out and have fun today."

Since arriving in Cleveland two years ago to replace one of the city's favorite sons, quarterback Bernie Kosar, Testaverde has been harassed by the Dawg Pound, Cleveland's notorious rooting section at one end of the stadium.

Testaverde, a former Heisman Trophy winner, had a similar experience with fans during his six lackluster seasons at Tampa Bay.

But yesterday, all of the bite was gone from the Dawg Pound. No howls or bones were hurled at Testaverde.

"Vinny has never been forgiven for throwing that interception at the goal line with 18 seconds left that enabled Penn State to beat Miami, 14-10, in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl and win the national championship," said Browns offensive tackle Tony Jones. "People have been saying Vinny is not the guy to take us into the playoffs. I hope they keep saying it as long as he produces like he did today."

Said Testaverde: "It doesn't matter what people think. I was satisfied with my play, and I know what my teammates think and they are behind me. We played together, and that's how it's going to be throughout the playoffs."

Despite the outstanding performance by Testaverde, Cleveland (12-5) had to survive a last-minute scare by the Patriots, who had closed the regular season with seven consecutive wins.

After New England's Matt Bahr kicked a 33-yard field goal with 1:30 left in the game to make it 20-13, the Patriots recovered an onside kick. But the last-gasp effort ended with Bledsoe throwing an incomplete pass as he was being buried by defensive end Rob Burnett on fourth-and-10 from the New England 48 with 43 seconds remaining.

"I tried to take his head off," said Burnett. "He's a great thrower, but if you hit him hard, he starts complaining and crying. We got to his legs early in the second half a few times, and he started whining to the officials. That's when he got rattled, and then he starts throwing the ball wildly all over the field."

Bledsoe, in his second year, played better in the first half yesterday, when he completed 11 of 24 passes for 139 yards. During a nine-play, 60-yard drive in the second quarter, he completed eight of nine passes and finished the series with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Leroy Thompson in the right flat that put New England ahead 7-3 with 10:48 remaining.

But the Patriots had no offensive rhythm in the second half, and their running game, a sore spot all season, finished with 57 yards. New England (10-7) had to rely on the arm of Bledsoe, who showed he's not yet in the Dan Marino class.

Bledsoe consistently underthrew receivers in the second half, and tried to force too many passes to tight end and leading receiver Ben Coates, whom the Browns double- and triple-teamed. Coates had six receptions for 79 yards.

Bledsoe's third interception, a short pass that was thrown too hard for fullback Kevin Turner, bounced off Turner's hands and into those of safety Eric Turner, who returned it to the Patriots' 36.

Seven plays later, Matt Stover, who had missed a 49-yard field-goal attempt nearly three minutes earlier, converted on a 21-yarder to give Cleveland a 20-10 lead with 3:36 remaining.

"You know, we tried everything we had today," said New England coach Bill Parcells, whose fake-punt call at the Cleveland 30 helped set up a 23-yard field goal by Bahr with 30 seconds left in the first half to tie the score at 10. "We got into a stale period there for most of the third period, and then we were pressing a little bit there at the end. When you press, you start to make mistakes."

Cleveland didn't make many in the second half. That's when its ground game started controlling the game behind runners Leroy Hoard and Earnest Byner. Hoard and Byner combined for 86 yards rushing on 27 carries, and it was Hoard who finished a six-minute, 10-play, 79-yard drive with a 10-yard run with 2:21 left in the third period.

And there was Testaverde. He didn't remind anyone of Joe Montana, but he fulfilled his job description -- no mistakes -- and a little more.

"I'll tell you what, if you look at the quarterbacks that played this week, his performance cannot be overlooked," said Hoard. "He made a lot of good decisions, and our offense played well in the second half. I think it will continue up in Pittsburgh."

Burnett said of the Steelers: "We owe them. We owe them big-time.

They have beaten us twice. They are a good team, and we're a good team. We're going back to say hello one more time."

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