Sports Illustrated has put out a piece on the “Biggest gut-punch loss” for each and every franchise, the Browns included.
The game that the author the piece, Doug Farrar, picked is one that everyone can recall, the famous ‘Fumble’ from the 1988 AFC Title Game – the second of three losses to the Broncos.
Cleveland Browns: Jan. 17, 1988, AFC championship—Broncos 38, Browns 33
The first of three AFC teams on our list coached by Marty Schottenheimer. Denver got past the Browns in the AFC championship game a year earlier thanks to John Elway’s famous drive. In the 1987 rematch, Denver jumped out to a 21–3 lead, but Cleveland quarterback Bernie Kosar threw three touchdown passes to bring his team back. One of those scoring throws was to running back Earnest Byner, and Byner also rushed for a four-yard touchdown in the third quarter. However, with the Browns driving late in the game, down 38–31, Byner fumbled the ball at the Denver two-yard line, stripped by Denver defensive back Jeremiah Castille.
The Broncos recovered and gave the Browns an intentional safety to essentially end the game.
“Earnest never saw Castille coming,” Schottenheimer later told ESPN. “Earnest was the reason we were still in the game at that point. He had several heroic runs and catches over the course of the second half that allowed us to have a chance to tie the game at 38. All of these heroics, unfortunately, were overshadowed by a single draw play from the eight-yard-line.”
It’s a shame, too, because Byner was a great player who rushed for more than 8,000 yards in his career, and eventually got a Super Bowl ring with the 1991 Redskins. But that’s the play for which he’ll always be remembered—the biggest gut-punch for a franchise that has had more than its share.
Even though it was tough, most Browns fans probably to this day will still argue the year before the game known as “The Drive” was even tougher as the Browns had a 20-13 lead and were at home for that AFC Championship Game.