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Subdued Browns lose out, but future bright

CLEVELAND -- The celebration at Cleveland Stadium couldn't have been more subdued Sunday afternoon following the Browns' regular season-ending 20-7 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

Browns players walked off matter-of-factly toward the locker room. They exchanged handshakes and hugs with some friends on the 49ers. Some waved to fans. Others tossed sweatbands or gloves into the crowd as a thank you for a season of support. The victory was the Browns' 10th, making them the first Cleveland team since 1994 to finish in double figures for victories.

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NY Giants at Tampa Bay

Jacksonville at Pittsburgh
Washington at Seattle
Tennessee at San Diego

Nevertheless, coach Romeo Crennel, popular among Browns players, didn't receive a Gatorade shower.

That's probably because their playoff fate wasn't decided until they were eliminated Sunday night when the Titans claimed the final spot with a win over Indianapolis.

Still, Browns players were appreciative of the job Crennel did this season. Veteran linebacker and leader Willie McGinest gave the coach a game ball as a symbol of what he means to this team. McGinest thanked Crennel for sticking with the players when no one else believed in them. McGinest said the Browns played this season for their coach.

"I told you back in training camp," Crennel told the team, "if you look good, I look good."

But last week's upset loss to the Bengals spoiled the Browns' playoff chances.

"When was the last time a 10-win team didn't make the playoffs?'' Browns kick returner Josh Cribbs said. "The coaches said all you need is to win 10 games and you're in the playoffs. We won 10 games.''

The last team to win 10 and not make the playoffs was the 2005 Kansas City Chiefs. Still, the 10-6 season for the Browns was a building block. They found a starting quarterback in Derek Anderson. Although Anderson finished the season with a few more interceptions (19) than Crennel would have liked, the tall quarterback's big-play ability and powerful arm turned the Browns into one of the NFL's most feared offenses.

Anderson had a bumpy ride Sunday. Fans booed him when he underthrew Kellen Winslow at the 49ers' 2-yard line and was intercepted by cornerback Walt Harris.

A crazier scene happened in the second quarter. Anderson rifled a 45-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Edwards to open a 14-0 lead. On the play, Anderson's right pinkie finger hit the helmet of a blitzing 49ers defender. On the previous series, he had done the same thing.

While Anderson headed to the locker room for X-rays, Brady Quinn started warming up and fans cheered. As Anderson came back to the bench from the locker room, he entered at the same time Quinn ran onto the field to take over the offense for the last drive of the first half. Fans stood up in their seats and gave an ovation. The ovation wasn't for the return of the starting quarterback. It was for Quinn.

"It was amazing,'' Quinn said of the ovation. "We have the best fans in Cleveland. I'm a hometown kid. It was nice coming back to play in front of people who watched you in high school and college."

Quinn's first pass attempt was a screen to the right. It was batted down. His second pass was a screen to the right. It was short.

"I had to dust off some rust when I went out there,'' said Quinn, who hadn't seen action since the preseason finale in August. Quinn said he ran a few extra steps on a stretch play handoff to Jamal Lewis to loosen up a little, and that helped.

He fired a 15-yard completion over the middle to tight end Steve Heiden and followed that with two more completions for 30 yards to set up a Phil Dawson field goal The Browns led, 17-7, at the half. Let the quarterback controversy begin.

Anderson returned for second half and finished the victory. The right pinkie was only badly bruised; some tape and a pain pill helped.

"Brady stepped in there like he's been in there for a long time,'' Winslow said. "He was very composed. Derek Anderson is still growing. He's still learning. He proved he's a warrior coming back from what he had. We've got some warriors on this team. We are getting respect. Maybe we can get some Monday night or Sunday night games next year so that people can see us."

The Browns have established themselves as one of the new, exciting teams in the league. Cribbs is the best returner whose name isn't Devin Hester. Against the 49ers, he had four punt returns for 135 yards and a touchdown and two kickoff returns for 57 more. A holding penalty -- which was a marginal call at best -- wiped out a 94-yard return.

Winslow and Edwards both had 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Jamal Lewis finished with 1,304 yards rushing. Anderson threw for 29 touchdowns. But next year, the Browns face an impossible schedule, which includes the AFC South and the NFC East.

"This [season] was definitely a stepping-stone," Winslow said.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.