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Unbeaten, Unbelievable

How can the Cleveland Browns be 3-0, and how about that Vinny Testaverde?

Does this make sense?

No, it does not.

The Cleveland Browns, notable mostly for two things in the last 35 years—Hall of Famer Jim Brown and the late-'80s teams that lost three "memorable" (adjective from the Browns' press guide) AFC Championship Games to the Denver Broncos—are about to do something out of character. With less than five minutes to go in this game with the 2-0 Los Angeles Raiders at the Coliseum, with the Raiders ahead 16-3 and the Cleveland offense looking as inept as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers', the Browns are about to go 3-0.

Impossible, isn't it? The Browns haven't opened a season with three wins since 1979. Quarterback Bernie Kosar has been so bad today—eight completions in 17 attempts for 72 yards, no touchdowns, three interceptions and three sacks—that he has been replaced by a scarecrow. Well, maybe not a scarecrow, but a human rag doll named Vincent Frank Testaverde, the 29-year-old former Heisman Trophy winner who was so buffeted by criticism during his six years with the Bucs that it seemed as though he might never function properly afield again. Who can forget the Tampa billboard that made fun of Testaverde's color blindness? Against a bright blue background were the words: VINNY THINKS THIS IS ORANGE.

But here Testaverde is now, acquired through free agency in March, comfortable at the right hand of Kosar, his old University of Miami pal, far from venomous Buccaneer fans, only blue sky above. And he's moving the Browns.

A 17-yard pass to wideout Mark Carrier. A 13-yard pass to running back Leroy Hoard. Oops, Testaverde gets sacked for a loss of three. No problem; two plays later, on third-and-13 at the Cleveland 37, he throws a 22-yard completion to running back Eric Metcalf. Then he tosses an 18-yarder to Michael Jackson—the wide-out, not the moonwalker. (More on both of them later.) Testaverde scrambles up the middle for 10 yards to the Raider eight. Then he's sacked back on the 12. On the next play he calmly Hips a touchdown pass to wideout Lawyer Tillman in the end zone. Twelve plays, 90 yards, 2:32 elapsed. Score: 16-10, Los Angeles.

Whoa. Early-leaving Raider fans, the ones hoping to beat Harbor Freeway gridlock, spin on their heels. The Raiders, who have been dumbly sitting on their lead like an old hen on an egg, can't blow this, can they? Not enough time is left, is there? Even Brown owner Art Modell will say later that he thought winning "was out of the question." Everyone is thinking the same thing: Testaverde's a bum. He doesn't have the stomach for this. He can't do this.

Can he?

On Saturday, Cleveland coach Bill Belichick pondered such a situation. "I want to tell you something," he said in his customarily intense fashion. "Testaverde is a player. This guy is good. People will see."

They're seeing right now, because here comes Testaverde again. In truth, just getting into this position called for a remarkable number of things to go right for the Browns. To begin with, Los Angeles is no longer the quarterbackless team that Cleveland whipped 28-16 in the third game of last season. That game marked the 1992 debut of young and distracted Todd Marinovich. He threw a Raider-record 59 passes, but he was waived this year by coach Art Shell, who told him, "Todd, you've got to find yourself."

Former New York Giant quarterback Jeff Hostetler is the Raiders' man now, and at the start of this game he helped fans forget all those rudderless years since Jim Plunkett retired in 1986. He guided L.A. to a 13-0 lead by throwing a two-yard scoring pass to tight end Andrew Glover and by engineering two drives that resulted in field goals of 24 and 27 yards by Jeff Jaeger. Since then, however, he has done nothing, figuring no doubt that the defense could take over.

At Friday's practice 13-year veteran defensive tackle Howie Long, the only Raider left from the old Oakland days, felt good about the off-season acquisition of Hostetler and the remodeling of the rickety Coliseum. "Now we have showers that work and a quarterback that works," Long said. "He came along just in time."

However, with the Cleveland defense battering Hostetler, the Raider offense has stopped in the second half. Still, the Browns need more to complete their comeback—they need the Raiders to give up the ball quickly, and L.A. proceeds to do just that. Taking the towering kickoff backward two yards to their own six, the Raiders maintain possession for only 45 seconds, during which Glover, who caught a first-quarter TD, drops a third-down Hostetler pass. Then the Raiders have punter Jeff Gossett take an intentional safety by running out of the end zone. With 1:41 left L.A. leads 16-12.

On the ensuing free kick Cleveland needs a good return, which it gets from Metcalf, who rips off a 37-yarder to the Raider 45. Suddenly it's Vinny's World, and a whole lot is riding on his shoulders. Winning this game not only would show that the lowly Browns (nobody picked them to do anything this year) are overachievers but also would ease the pressure on the sometimes bellicose Belichick, whose record with Cleveland coming into this season was 13-19. If trying to beat opponents isn't enough, Belichick has to confront the expectations of a wildly enthusiastic owner. Last season, after the Browns failed to make the playoffs for the third year in a row, Modell said, "I'm so positive of Bill Belichick's future here...that if we don't get the job done by the end of his contract [1995], I will get out of football and leave Cleveland." Yikes! Who wants displacement of a family on his conscience? Come on, Vinny!

Brown fullback Tommy Vardell blasts up the middle for eight yards on the first play, and there's 1:17 remaining. Vardell will finish the day with a game-high 104 yards rushing on 14 carries, proving his worth as part of the new-look Browns, who include rookie center Steve Everitt and veterans like cornerback Everson Walls, defensive tackle Jerry Ball and linebacker Pepper Johnson. The Johnsons of Cleveland are a special force in this game. Together—Pepper, defensive end Bill and middle linebacker Mike—they will have 18 tackles (including two sacks), two special-team tackles and a pass broken up.

Also part of Cleveland's new agenda is the regular appearance in the locker room of former NFL star and current businessman/motivational speaker/social worker Jim Brown. Belichick wants all the old-timers to come around and impart wisdom to the current players, to show, as he says, "once you're a Brown, you're always a Brown."

Which is twice true for old number 32. Jim Brown, 57, is the man Belichick believes can inspire the troops just by standing there and being, well, Jim Brown. His speeches are gravy. "He's not rah-rah," says Kosar. "But he has a precise focus—on confidence, effort and enjoying the position you're in at the moment."

Whether speaking to middle managers, gang members or NFL players, Brown says it's "all pretty much the same. A human being is a human being." It's interesting to watch this former angry young man try on the role of elder statesman.

Out on the field Testaverde is still trying on the role of comeback king. He hits Carrier for 18 yards to the L.A. 16. He spikes the ball to stop the clock with 26 seconds to go. He hooks up with Carrier again for 17 yards to the L.A. one and calls Cleveland's last timeout. Eleven seconds are showing on the clock.

Testaverde lofts a ball into the left corner of the end zone. The 6'4" Jackson leaps to snare it, and does, but he can't stay inbounds. Six seconds left. Will the Browns have another chance like that? Jackson hopes so. He played the season opener as Michael Dyson, taking his father's surname and avoiding the silliness of having the same name as the world's most famous entertainer. Now Dyson is Jackson again, hoping even to capitalize on the accident of nomenclature. "I want to meet him," he says of the singer, "and do a poster. Man in the Mirror—he looks in the mirror and he!"

Testaverde sees only danger ahead. Belichick has ordered a toss sweep left to Metcalf. If this doesn't work, it's over. "This was definitely the last play," Testaverde says afterward. "If Eric gets tackled, it's the end of the game." Did he like the call? He smiles. "Now that it's over," Testaverde says, "it's a great call."

Metcalf takes the pitch and waltzes toward the end zone without a hand grazing his uniform. The entire left side of the Raider line is sealed by Brown blockers. Metcalf burned the Raiders for four touchdowns last year, and they have been watching him like eagles today. On this play they watch him too hard. "It seemed like their whole team ran over to the right side when I lined up there," Metcalf says. "Once I crossed the line of scrimmage I could see I was in."

He holds the ball out like a trophy as he glides in for the score. The Browns have won 19-16, and Los Angeles fans look as though they have just seen the San Andreas Fault begin to yaw. It is an odd victory. Metcalf, for instance, averaged minus-10 inches for each of his seven carries, and between them the Cleveland quarterbacks threw four interceptions, fumbled twice and were sacked five times. The Raiders committed no turnovers.

"At the end we found a way to win," Ball says correctly, resplendent in an iridescent azure sport coat big enough to serve as a tablecloth for a picnic. "That's what wins championships, not stats."

And the quarterback controversy? Forget it. Afterward, Testaverde tells Kosar, "This is your team. Don't worry." Adds Belichick, "Bernie's our starting quarterback." Says Kosar of his relationship with Testaverde, "We're great friends."

Friendship is a wonderful thing. But right now old Vinny needs to step out front and take a bow, all by himself. The blue ribbon is his.



Metcalf had little time but lots of room to high-step in for the TD that beat Los Angeles.



Testaverde, more mobile than Kosar, ran the Browns' comeback and made one of his own.



Although he caught three passes, Hoard fell under a horde of Raiders when he tried to run.