Browns 24, Panthers 23
A foot or so right and John Kasay is a hero, Eric Mangini's in deeper trouble and Jimmy Clausen has his first career NFL win. A foot or so right, Jake Delhomme doesn't find redemption and Peyton Hillis' historic day is fogotten.
The Carolina Panthers were set to win as Kasay, one of the league's most accurate kickers, lined up for a 42-yard field goal with five seconds left.
The flags were still. For Kasay, a chip shot.
Not in Cleveland.
''There are no gimmes here,'' Browns kicker Phil Dawson said.
Kasay's attempt sailed left as time expired, grazing off the upright and sending Cleveland to a 24-23 win on Sunday, a closer-than-expected win for the Browns in a season overstuffed with tough losses and injuries.
''We've had so many things go wrong for us,'' Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown said. ''Maybe this is a sign of things turning around.''
Hillis, Cleveland's new folk hero and workhorse, rushed for 131 yards and three first-half touchdowns, and Delhomme, making his first start at home for the Browns (4-7), passed for 245 yards to beat the Panthers, who released him in March after seven seasons.
As Kasay's kick fluttered toward the goal post, Delhomme couldn't bear to watch. He sat on the bench waiting for Cleveland's crowd to tell him the outcome.
The roar signaled victory.
''There are two emotions in this league,'' said Delhomme, who overcame two interceptions. ''Pure joy from winning and the misery of losing. It's good to be on this side.''
Kasay only got the chance at his 14th career game-winner after Clausen drove the Panthers (1-10) from their 5 to Cleveland's 25 in the final minute. He completed a sideline pass to fellow rookie Brandon LaFell for 28 yards - a gutty, clutch throw that could prove to be a turning point for the rookie QB - to put Kasay in position with five seconds remaining.
He probably shouldn't have gotten the chance.
After making the catch, LaFell rolled out of bounds but appeared to be touched by Brown. The clock should have run out, and as referee Jeff Triplette went to review the play, an official near Cleveland's sideline told Mangini that if the catch was in bounds then the game would be over.
The catch was ruled good, but Triplette decided the clock was correct.
Mangini was both confused and irate, and as Kasay lined up to perhaps send him to a loss that could jeopardize his job security, Cleveland's coach was inconsolable.
''There were too many expletives going through my mind at that point,'' Mangini said. '''We should not be here lining up for a kick,' is what was going through my mind.''
When Kasay trotted out for the potential game-winner, Dawson believed the Browns were doomed.
''I didn't have a good feeling,'' Dawson said. ''My only hope was good old Cleveland Browns Stadium.''
Sure enough, Kasay's kick into the stadium's closed end was steered wide just as so many have been before it, ending another close call for the Browns, who led 21-7 at the half.
''I was the one who failed,'' Kasay said. ''This is one of those days where they did everything they needed to do to win. I was the one who let them down. There's no other way to cut it.''
Before Kasay missed, the Browns were in danger of adding an embarrassing loss to a string of tough setbacks. Last week, they fell in Jacksonville despite forcing six turnovers and losing rookie quarterback Colt McCoy with an ankle injury.
This time, they got lucky.
''An incredible range of emotions,'' Browns tackle Joe Thomas said. ''The craziest game I have ever been involved in.''
The win also got a rusty Delhomme, who had missed eight games with an ankle injury, off the hook after he threw a costly interception in the third quarter that Carolina's Captain Munnerlyn returned 37 yards for a TD to pull the Panthers within 21-20.
Kasay's 43-yarder put Carolina ahead with 7:01 left.
Delhomme bounced back from the two picks - on his first two passes - in the second half by going 5 for 5 on Cleveland's drive in the fourth that set up 41-yard field goal that made it 24-23 with 2:42 left.
Hillis had TD runs of 9, 5 and 6 yards in the first half. He has 11 rushing TDs, joining Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly as the only Cleveland backs to have that many in one season. Hillis scoffed at any suggestion he's in their company.
''That's absurd,'' he said. ''Those guys are legends and I'm a nobody.''
Browns fans strongly disagree. The down-home, humble Arkansas country boy has become a cult figure in Cleveland, which wasn't sure what it was getting when the Browns traded quarterback Brady Quinn for Hillis, who loves to hunt wild boars when he isn't destroying would-be tacklers.
Hillis' only hiccup was a poorly thrown pass on a halfback option, when he missed wide open tight end Ben Watson for an easy TD.
''Boy, that was ugly, wasn't it?'' Hillis said. ''I think that's the end of my quarterback career.''
Notes: Hillis has six games to break Brown's team record of 17 rushing TDs in a season, set in 1958 and 1965. ... Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart finished with 98 rushing yards. ... Kasay is eighth on the career points list (1,796) and seventh in field goals (426). ... Carolina was the only team Cleveland had never beaten. The Browns are now 1-3 vs. the Panthers.