The homecoming party Cleveland Browns fans waited nearly four years to throw came off without a hitch. Except for the final score, of course.
What mattered most was that the NFL was back on the lakefront and the Browns were back on the field.
The Browns came home for good Saturday night, opening their awesome new stadium in front of the same fans who fought to bring them back to Cleveland, with a 24-17 exhibition loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
Cleveland's first units were overmatched by the Vikings, who opened an early 21-0 lead before their reserves allowed the Browns to make the score respectable.
"We'll tackle much better next week, I guarantee it," Browns linebacker Chris Spielman said.
Cunningham was 11-of-12 for 124 yards before being replaced by Jeff George. Carter, whose 5-yard TD catch in the second quarter gave the Vikings a 14-0 lead, made five catches three on diving grabs in the opening period.
Randy Moss also caught a TD pass for the Vikings, who wanted a better showing after losing to the New York Giants last week.
"I wanted to exert more energy," Cunninham said. "I got my arm working in this game."
But not even the final score or any imbalance on the stat sheet could wreck an historic night for Cleveland, which hadn't played host to an NFL game since Dec. 17, 1995, when the Browns played their final game in dingy, old Cleveland Stadium.
Dressed head to toe in orange and brown, Browns fans, many of them retracing the same routes they took to the old stadium, began arriving more than four hours before kickoff.
They came early to walk the grounds of the $283 million, 72,000-seat Cleveland Browns Stadium, which was primarily built with their tax dollars. Once allowed inside, fans rushed to their seats to take pictures, greet old friends and soak in a night many couldn't wait to arrive.
When the Browns burst through the northwest tunnel a few minutes before 7 p.m., the crowd, led by the rowdy Dawg Pound bleacher section, christened the new stadium with its first standing ovation.
"That was great," Detmer said. "It's always nice to play at home. You can feel the excitement in the air and that everybody is ready for football here."
Cleveland's new stadium got rave reviews from fans and players, some of whom remembered dressing in tiny locker rooms and taking cold postgame showers in the old place.
"This is one of the nicer facilities you're going to see as a visiting team," said Vikings offensive tackle Korey Stringer, who grew up in Warren, Ohio. "It's roomy and it looks like the showers work."
For a while, the team introduction looked like it might be the highlight of the night for Cleveland.
With the Browns unable to put any kind of pressure on him, Cunningham picked Cleveland's secondary apart, connecting with Carter on three passes in a 59-yard drive as Minnesota took a 7-0 lead. Leroy Hoard, a former Brown, went in from 6 yards for the score.
Minnesota scored on its next possession with Carter going up over former teammate Corey Fuller at the goal line for a 14-0 lead.
Meanwhile, Couch, so impressive in his pro debut in the Hall of Fame Game against Dallas, learned another humbling NFL lesson.
"In high school and college I was used to throwing a touchdown pass a game," Couch said. "The last two games have been worse performances than the firs one. I've got a ways to go."
Moss appeared to push Fuller down from behind near the end zone before catching George's 43-yard pass as Minnesota opened a 21-0 lead with 6:49 left in the half.
Following a fumble by George, the Browns scored their first home touchdown on an 8-yard pass from Detmer to Damon Gibson, who just got both feet down in the back of the end zone.
The play stood after being reviewed as Browns fans anxiously waited for referee Phil Luckett to finish watching the replay on the sideline.
Gary Anderson kicked a 44-yard field goal as time expired in the first half to put the Vikings ahead 24-7.
Cleveland drove the ball to the Vikings 2 late in the fourth quarter, but rookie Madre Hill fumbled trying to dive over a pile near the goal line.
The Browns forced the Vikings to punt, and got one last chance to tie it but third-string quarterback Mike Cook's pass was intercepted in the end zone by linebacker Pete Bercich with seven seconds left.
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