Joel Bitonio reflects on 2014 Browns-Falcons thriller

Dramatic 26-24 win vaulted Cleveland to 7-4 before everything fell apart

Daryl Ruiter
November 07, 2018 - 6:51 pm

(Photo by Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS/Sipa USA)

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Cleveland, OH (92.3 The Fan) – In the expansion disaster since 1999, the Cleveland Browns have played very few meaningful football games, but two of them have come against this week’s opponent, the Atlanta Falcons.

On Dec. 29, 2002 it was the “run William run” game.

The voice of the Browns Jim Donovan screamed that with delight as running back William Green raced 64 yards to the end zone for his second touchdown of the afternoon with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter to seal a 24-16 victory to propel the Browns into the playoffs for the only time in the expansion era.

The last meeting between these teams came Nov. 23, 2014, and it is one that left guard Joel Bitonio remembers like it was yesterday.

“It was my rookie year and we had a game-winning field goal,” Bitonio said. “Late in the game we had a nice two-minute drive. I know Josh Gordon got like 20 targets in that game or something like that. It was his first game back and he got a bunch of targets, but we won the game.”

Gordon returned from one of his many suspensions to catch eight of 16 targets for 120 yards that day.

Bitonio made an incredible chase down tackle of Falcons receiver and returner Devin Hester, who returned a 60-yard field goal try right before halftime from deep in the end zone 75 yards, to save a touchdown and keep the Browns within 14-13.

Kicker Billy Cundiff booted a 37-yard field goal as time expired to give the Browns a 26-24 win to push the team to 7-4 on the season and squarely in the middle of the playoff race.

“We were feeling good about ourselves,” Bitonio said. “I think we were 7-4 at the time and it was really cool to feel that. You felt Cleveland backing us. It was my rookie year and I was like, ‘winning is easy, man. We’re going to the playoffs every year.’ I was feeling it.”

Those were the days.

For Bitonio. For the Browns. For their long suffering and traumatized fans.

Since that joyous Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome, the Browns have completely fallen off a cliff and into an abyss of miserable losing, also known as the worst stretch of professional football in NFL history.

The Browns lost their last five games in 2014 that included the controversial benching of starter Brian Hoyer in favor of unprepared rookie Johnny Manziel. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan used a PowerPoint presentation to beg out of his contract because he couldn’t stand the dysfunction after the team finished 7-9. General manager Ray Farmer was suspended at the outset of the 2015 season and fined for texting the sidelines during games in 2014.  

Head coach Mike Pettine and Farmer would be fired after the team went 3-13 the following year.

Pettine’s successor Hue Jackson received a hero’s welcome in January 2016. He went 3-36-1 before being fired on Oct. 29.

That’s six wins, 55 losses, and a tie that have followed that thriller.

“Since then, it’s been tough,” Bitonio said. “We haven’t had the best of luck. We’ve lost a lot of games and since then I think the only two people that played in that game are me and Kirksey that are still here. It’s been a whirlwind for sure.”

Whirlwind, disaster. Semantics.

The Falcons swoop back into Cleveland this week winners of three straight and back to .500 at 4-4 on the season while the Browns have already been eliminated from the playoff picture and they’re just playing for pride.

It’s a bitter feeling for Bitonio, who is now the lone player remaining on the active roster from that 2014 game with Christian Kirksey placed on injured reserve Wednesday.

“It’s unfortunate we’re not in a battle right now, like battling for first place in the North or anything like that, but we have our own battles,” Bitonio said. “We’re trying to improve every week and get some wins to finish this year out. We got a long way to go. We still have seven games to go and there’s some games we want to win on this schedule, so we’re going to go out there and I don’t think there’s anybody in here that’s packing it in or worried about us tanking this year.”