CLEVELAND (Ticker) -- The Cleveland Browns likely believe the officials, and not the Jacksonville Jaguars, cost them a shot at the playoffs in a wild finish that reportedly even involved NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
Jimmy Smith caught a touchdown pass on the opening drive and Stacey Mack rushed for 115 yards before a controversial call in the final minute eventually secured the Jaguars a 15-10 victory over the Browns.
Tim Couch appeared to hit rookie Quincy Morgan with a three-yard completion on 4th-on-2 to give the Browns a 1st-and-goal on the Jaguars' 9. Couch then spiked the ball with 48 seconds left and Cleveland within range of a go-ahead score.
But referee Terry McAulay initially seemed to suggest the communications system, which allows the replay official to alert him about a reviewable play during the final two minutes of a half, had malfunctioned.
"The buzzer on my belt went off just prior to the snap," McAulay said. "We are playing football and I realize the buzzer has gone off and I go to the umpire (Carl Paganelli) and he says his buzzer is going off, too."
"According to the referee, they had ruled the pass complete, moved the first-down chains and let us run a play," Browns coach Butch Davis said. "They said (the replay buzzer) went off simultaneously as the snap went through. We had already run a play. It makes me sick. You don't like to lose on questionable calls."
McAulay said he consulted with replay assistant Bill Reynolds.
"(I said to) Bill Reynolds, did you press the buzzer prior to the snap? He said, 'Absolutely, 100-percent,'" McAulay said. "At that point we had a legal review. We go in and review the (Couch-to-Morgan) play. The ball is coming loose, hits the ground, incomplete pass."
The ruling on the field was reversed, stating Morgan did not have possession.
"I caught the ball, I know I caught the ball," Morgan said. "I hit the ground, got up, and spit the ball up on the ground."
"We did (think it was incomplete) because upstairs they (the coaches) started yelling," Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin said. "There was a lot of interest upstairs, but it was under two minutes to go and we were out of timeouts. So, we knew we could not challenge."
The officials' decision, along with limited communication with the puzzled fans via the public address system, prompted beer bottles and other debris to be hurled on to the field by frustrated members of the crowd of 72,818.
"We were trying to finish the game. But as we lined up, a bottle zipped past my head," McAulay said.
"That was bad, this is not football. That is not like I know it," Coughlin said. "They were not throwing water bottles. They were throwing full beer bottles. If they hit one of the kids on the field, it could have been serious."
Due to the danger posed to the players, McAulay initially declared the game over with 48 seconds remaining and the players left the field.
"He's (Tagliabue) the only one who has the power to determine a game prior to conclusion," said NFL supervisor Dick McKenzie, the league's official observer at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday.
However, the officials brought the players back onto the field. Commissioner Tagliabue phoned the officials to inform them the game must be finished.
"There is no rule that permits us to protest the outcome of the game," Browns president and CEO Carmen Policy said. "I was on the phone with the commissioner during the lull and we understood the rules from him very clearly and it was his position that the game couldn't be terminated with time left on the clock."
Policy, however, may have seen the fans' actions in a different light than the league office.
"If I'm not going to criticize the officials, I am certainly not going to criticize the fans of Cleveland," Policy said. "I like the fact that our fans cared. They care about this team and they cared about this game."
Morgan, who only had two receptions for as many yards as part of a Browns offense that recorded just 220 total net yards, also said he understood the fans' actions.
"After a call like that, they have to defend their Browns," Morgan said.
"This is a great football city, but to be honest it disgusts me," said Jaguars receiver Keenan McCardell, who played for the old Browns. "For some great fans, this was disgusting," McCardell said. "I never thought I would see it again. But I saw it again. It brought back memories of '95."
In the final home game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on December 17, 1995, prior to the former franchise's move to Baltimore, McCardell recalled chairs being hurled during a victory over Cincinnati.
But on this given Sunday, the Browns were not as fortunate on the field. The Jaguars were awarded possession after the long delay and most of the crowd had departed. Quarterback Mark Brunell took two knees and time expired.
"I was getting ready to shower and all of the guys had to get dressed again," Brunell said. "Apparently, the commissioner called and said that we had to finish the game. So, we did what the boss said."
"They just asked for 11 volunteers and we went out there," Browns center Shaun O'Hara said.
This was the final home game for Cleveland (6-7), which closes the season with difficult road contests against Green Bay, Tennessee and Pittsburgh.
The Jaguars (5-8) won for the seventh time in eight all-time games against their AFC Central Division rivals.
Despite scoring on the opening drive and facing a struggling Browns offense, the Jaguars only lead 9-0 at the half. The Cleveland defense thwarted Jacksonville, recording six of its eight sacks in the opening 30 minutes and holding the dangerous Jaguars' passing attack to just 27 yards in the air.
Jacksonville was close to scoring late in the third quarter. But on a 3rd-and-6 at the Cleveland 6, Browns rookie Anthony Henry picked off a pass by Brunell and returned it 97 yards for a touchdown. It was Henry's second interception of the game and NFL-best ninth of the season.
"It was just a miscommunication," Brunell said. "I shouldn't have thrown the ball. We ran the same route when we scored earlier."
Mike Hollis kicked three field goals, including a 37-yarder with 2:57 left to give Jacksonville a five-point cushion. He capped a 14-play, 47-yard drive that killed just over 5:12 late in the contest.
Hollis, however, did miss an extra point wide left after the Jaguars' game-opening 15-play, 67-yard drive. Brunell connected with Smith on a four-yard slant pass for the lone offensive touchdown of the game and a 6-0 lead 8:48 into the contest.
But Brunell, who threw for 202 yards on 20-of-35 passing, said he will remember this game for other reasons.
"I have never seen anything like that ever and I probably will never see anything like that again," Brunell said of the fans' tossing of debris. "I told the guys, 'You will not forget that one. This is a game you will always remember.'" .