Couch's Comeback One Of True Grit

By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer

BEREA, Ohio (AP) - Tim Couch strutted into Cleveland's noisy huddle, wiped the blood from his lower lip, snapped his chin strap and grabbed control.

"It was a little bit of a John Wayne thing," Browns coach Butch Davis said Monday.

Without the horse.

Out of timeouts and needing a tying touchdown, Couch, the quarterback some said shouldn't even be playing, then quieted his teammates before silencing a hostile crowd.

"Everybody was talking on that last drive, saying what we should do," wide receiver Andre Davis recalled. "He said, 'Shut up. This is what we're going to run.'"

Couch shut up more than just his teammates on Sunday. By rallying the Browns (2-1) to a 31-28 overtime win against the Tennessee Titans with the best game of his four-year NFL career, Couch -- who passed for 326 yards and three touchdowns, two in the final 2:35 of regulation -- squashed any notion of there being a quarterback controversy in Cleveland.

"Couch came back and played excellent," wide receiver Kevin Johnson said.

Davis insisted last week that despite backup Kelly Holcomb's solid performance in the first two weeks, Couch was the Browns' unquestioned starter and leader.

There's no doubt now.

"I proved a point," Couch said following his spectacular season debut.

Couch, who sat out the first two weeks after tearing scar tissue near his elbow, wasn't the only player to stage a comeback on a day of redemption for the Browns.

There was also third-year wide receiver Dennis Northcutt, who before Sunday was better known for dropped passes and a flashy wardrobe than game-breaking plays.

Northcutt returned a punt 74 yards for a TD to bring the Browns within 21-14 late in the third quarter. But he gave the seven points from his first TD as a pro right back by muffing a punt inside the 10-yard line to help the Titans take a 28-14 lead.

Northcutt atoned for his miscue by recovering an onside kick to set up the Browns' final TD -- his 8-yard reception with 12 seconds left during which he slipped away from a Tennessee defender with a jaw-dropping spin move.

"Three out of four ain't bad," Northcutt joked about his percentage of success.

Phil Dawson also bounced back.

He missed a 52-yard field goal in the second quarter, snapping his streak of making 21 straight. But Dawson perfectly executed the onside kick with Northcutt before booting a game-winning field goal in OT.

"Part of my job is to handle missed kicks," Dawson said. "I had to be ready. I just did my part."

Cleveland's rushing defense finally did its part, too, rebounding from two dismal outings. The Browns held Eddie George to 59 yards and limited Tennessee's offense to just 187.

And with their second win, the Browns distanced themselves from the Week 1 loss against Kansas City that slipped away when linebacker Dwayne Rudd threw his helmet in the closing seconds.

"It still boils down to playing the entire 60 minutes, and guys believing you got a chance to win," Davis said.

Couch's comeback, however, was Cleveland's best.

Playing behind a line missing two starters, Couch was rusty in the first half. He helped put the Browns behind 21-7 with a poorly thrown pass that was picked off and returned for a TD.

Couch was battered all day, getting sacked three times and flattened another 10. He was bloodied and bruised, but Couch refused to be beaten. Instead, he took his team to an improbable win -- one he and the Browns may someday view as a defining victory.

"Anytime you lead a team in a come-from-behind thing, it builds your credibility," Davis said. "It builds your respect. Once you've done it one time, then in the back of everybody's mind, including his. 'Well, we've done it before, there's no reason we can't do it again.'"

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)