When the defensive team of the Cleveland Browns gathered in the locker room at halftime of last Saturday's AFC playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts, inside linebacker Eddie Johnson was fuming. Forty seconds before the gun, the Dawg Defense—rated No. 1 in the conference during the regular season—had rolled over and played dead. Clay Matthews, the Browns' Pro Bowl outside linebacker, had let Colts running back Eric Dickerson easily grab a 19-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jack Trudeau to tie the score at 14-14.
"We have to take control of this game, or we're going to get our butts kicked," Johnson bellowed. "To let them waltz down that field and tie the score is unacceptable!"
One by one, Johnson looked the Dawgs in the eye and continued, "I'm sick and tired of being in the playoffs—getting close to the Super Bowl—but not getting there. I can't go through that again."
Johnson's tirade put the bite back into the Dawgs. They tore back onto the field and chewed up Dickerson and the Colts. Cleveland won 38-21, and—aptly enough—Johnson played a pivotal role in turning the game around.
Indianapolis started the third quarter with the ball at its own 15 and marched effortlessly up the field. A six-yard pass to Matt Bouza. A nine-yard screen to Dickerson. A 15-yarder to running back Albert Bentley and soon the Colts were deep in Cleveland territory, looking as if they could strike at will.
Then, on second and 14 from the Browns' 20, Trudeau dropped back to pass and was surprised by Johnson, crashing through a gap in the Indianapolis line. As Trudeau followed through, Johnson hit his right arm, deflecting the ball into the hands of Cleveland's free safety Felix Wright. "I'd called a corner route to [tight end] Pat Beach," Trudeau would say later. "He was covered, so I decided to throw the ball away. I let it go, hoping nobody would knock it down. What a nightmare."
Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar calmly trotted onto the field. This season, only his third in the NFL, Kosar was rated the second-best passer in the league, behind San Francisco's Joe Montana. He's only 24, but he's already one of the best at reading defenses.
In the first half, for instance, Kosar noticed that the Colts were using a linebacker to cover tight end Ozzie Newsome whenever he lined up on the right side. So at halftime, Kosar talked with Newsome about taking advantage of his greater speed. "Bernie told me I was a viable receiver in that situation," said Newsome after the game. "He said the first time we got the ball, we'd test them to see if they'd still cover me that way."
They did. On first down from the Cleveland 14, Newsome beat Indy linebacker Cliff Odom for a nine-yard reception. Kosar went to Newsome twice more—for 18 and 16 yards—and the Browns were cooking.
On third and one at the Colts' two, it was Kosar's turn to give a pep talk. "BK looked at us in the huddle and called us a championship team," said running back Earnest Byner. "He said, 'To show the world what kind of character we have, we must crunch these guys—right now!' "