Friday, November 9, 2007

Browns Seek to Exorcise Their House of Horror

The 5-3 Cleveland Browns visit 6-2 Pittsburgh this Sunday in a battle for first place in the AFC North. Pittsburgh has been a house of horror for the Browns for the majority of the years since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger placed the teams in the same division, first known as the AFC Central before it was renamed and reconstituted in 2002. The last season that the Browns had a really good team was 1994, when Bill Belichick was Cleveland's head coach; the Browns went 11-5 in the regular season, with two of those losses coming at the hands of the Steelers. Cleveland beat New England 20-13 in the Wild Card round and then got blasted by the Steelers 29-9 in the Divisional round. The last time that the Browns made the playoffs was 2002, when they snuck in with a 9-7 record; naturally, they dropped both regular season games with the Steelers and then lost to Pittsburgh 36-33 in the first round of the playoffs, a defeat made all the more painful because the Browns blew a 24-7 second half lead. Even when the Browns have been good, they still have had trouble dealing with the Steelers. Of course, since the Browns returned in 1999, they have generally been pretty bad and this is reflected in their particularly gruesome record against Pittsburgh since that time: 3-14 (15 if you count the 2002 playoff loss), including the past eight contests. Many of these games have been ghastly blowouts, including a 41-0 shellacking in 2005, a 27-7 loss in 2006 and a 34-7 decision in week one of this season.

The week one loss, "highlighted" by four Browns penalties on one play, was so horrible that it convinced me that the Browns would not go anywhere with Romeo Crennel as coach, and when the Browns made the seemingly knee jerk reaction to trade starting quarterback Charlie Frye to Seattle the franchise seemed to be more adrift than it had ever been, which is really saying something. I don't feel bad about being skeptical early in the year about the Browns' program under Crennel; the team has looked undisciplined during most of his tenure and it is safe to say that absolutely nobody could have predicted that after elevating Derek Anderson to the starting quarterback position that the Browns would suddenly have one of the most potent offensive attacks in the NFL and the best one that the team has had since the twilight of its glory days in the 1960s. Obviously, if Crennel had realized how good Anderson could be then he would not have been flipping a coin to decide between Frye and Anderson.

The Browns rank fourth in the league in scoring (28.4 ppg), behind only New England (39.4 ppg), Dallas (33.1 ppg) and Indianapolis (30.5 ppg) and just ahead of Pittsburgh (27.8 ppg). The Bernie Kosar-led Cleveland Browns in the 1980s peaked at 24.4 ppg in 1986 and 1987, while the Brian Sipe-led Kardiac Kids in the late 1970s and early 1980s topped off at 22.4 ppg in 1979; the only Browns teams that outscored the current squad were the 1964 NFL champions (29.6 ppg) and the 1966 squad (28.8 ppg) that went 9-5 the year after Jim Brown retired. Anderson is on track to break Sipe's single-season franchise record for touchdown passes (30; Anderson has 17) and emerging star Braylon Edwards may eclipse Gary Collins' team-record for touchdown receptions (13; Edwards has nine). Anderson, Edwards, tight end Kellen Winslow and running back Jamal Lewis are the headliners on the offense but, as is often the case, their success is made possible by excellent offensive line play. The Browns drafted left tackle Joe Thomas with the third overall selection in the 2007 draft and he and his linemates have done a great job providing protection for Anderson, who attempted 48 passes in last week's win against Seattle without being sacked once.

The Browns are saying all the right things leading up to Sunday's showdown but what matters is not what is said but what is done. The Browns had never won in Three Rivers Stadium until Kosar led Cleveland to a 27-24 win there in 1986. That game, as much as anything else, announced that the Browns were serious contenders, and the team made it to three of the next four AFC Championship Games. A victory in Pittsburgh this Sunday would mean more to Browns' fans than scoring records, Pro Bowl selections or any other accomplishments that are within reach for this team and its top players; a victory in Pittsburgh could be the first step in exorcising Cleveland's house of horror and a statement that this Browns team is really going places.

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