Browns' top plays: The Fumble

Cleveland Browns running back Earnest Byner is comforted by teammate Brian Brennan after Byner fumbled in the closing minutes of the 1987 AFC Championship Game against the Broncos. AP photo/Mark Duncan

This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in team history. The previous two featured were Lou Groza’s kick to win the NFL title in the Browns' first season in the league, and Gary Collins’ post pattern reception in the 1964 NFL Championship Game, the last title in Cleveland history. Please vote for your choice as the Browns’ most memorable play.

Score: Denver 38, Cleveland 33

Date: Jan. 17, 1988 Site: Mile High Stadium

Red Right 88 was mind-numbing, and not just because of the cold.

The Drive was a punch into a city’s gut.

But The Fumble ... well that ripped at the heart of a team and a city and a player who had done so much for his team before the fumble occurred.

The Browns made the 1987 AFC Championship Game after falling victim to John Elway and “The Drive” the year prior. Instead of wilting, the Browns bonded and put together another excellent season that saw them head to Denver for the championship game repeat -- with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

But the Browns started miserably and fell behind 21-3 at halftime and 28-10 early in the third quarter. Bernie Kosar led a furious comeback as the Browns scored 21 points in the third quarter, with Earnest Byner contributing a 32-yard touchdown catch, a short touchdown run and a 53-yard reception on the drive that tied the game at 31.

But like he did a year earlier, Elway led the Broncos to a touchdown with 4:01 left. Kosar had time, and had the Browns at the Broncos' 8 with 1:12 left. The Browns surprised Denver by handing off to Byner, who rambled around the left end and appeared ready to send the game to overtime by walking into the end zone.

Cleveland celebrated when it saw Byner fall past the goal line, but unknown to many, Denver cornerback Jeremiah Castille had dived at Byner at the 1 and stripped the ball. Castille recovered at the 3.

A distraught city wiped away tears, as did the players who had fought so hard to get back and seemed to have all the momentum going to overtime.

While many scapegoated Byner -- who had 187 total yards in the game -- coach Marty Schottenheimer later explained to NFL Films that receiver Webster Slaughter was supposed to take Castille to the corner of the end zone and block him, but instead cut his route short to watch the play. That put Castille in position to strip the ball from Byner, who went on to have a successful career but will sadly always be remembered at least in part for this one play.

Though it’s tough to choose between Red Right 88 and The Drive and The Fumble and other Keystone Kops plays since 1999, “The Fumble” stands out as the end of an era. Because though the Browns would again make the title game in Denver under Bud Carson, they were never as close as they were with the Kosar-Byner-Mack-Slaughter teams of the mid-to-late ‘80s.

The play’s memory remains as deflating today as it was almost 30 years ago.