Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Welcome to Believeland!

Cleveland has improbably become "Believeland." The Indians did better than expected last season, the Cavaliers won the Eastern Conference Finals thanks to the efforts of LeBron James--who is perhaps the NBA's best young star--and the Browns are just one win away from clinching the team's first playoff berth since 2002. The Browns and their loyal fans have suffered through bad drafts, disappointing free agent signings, a rash of bizarre injuries and horrible quarterbacking--all of which combined to produce losing records year after year. This season began in all too familiar fashion with a humiliating loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Amazingly, since that disaster the Browns have become the turnaround story of the season and after Sunday's 8-0 victory over the Buffalo Bills they are tied with Pittsburgh for first place in the AFC North with a 9-5 record. The Steelers hold the tiebreaker advantage due to a 2-0 head to head record but if the Browns can close out the season by beating Cincinnati and San Francisco then they will only need a Pittsburgh loss either at St. Louis or at Baltimore to clinch the franchise's first division title since 1989. The Steelers have lost two in a row and are just 2-4 this year on the road.

"Red Right 88," "The Drive" and "The Fumble" are reminders that even some good Cleveland teams seemed to be snakebitten but this year's squad won a game thanks to a "double doink" field goal and beat Buffalo in the third lowest scoring game in franchise history with a final score that has not been seen in the NFL since 1929. After the Browns almost beat Arizona on a last second pass, receiver Braylon Edwards quipped that if the Browns had won that game he'd say that they were going to the Super Bowl because destiny is on the team's side. Well, what can you say about a vitally important game in which the winning team's points came from a safety after a snap sails over a punter's head and two field goals that the kicker had to intentionally aim outside of the goal posts because of swirling winds? When Coach Romeo Crennel sent Phil Dawson out to kick a 49 yard field goal I thought that he had lost his mind--and when the kick landed precisely on the spot where the "double doink" kick hit I thought of Edwards' statement and wondered aloud if the Browns really are a team of destiny this year.

I don't really believe in things like luck or good fortune, though, and there are some fundamental football reasons that explain the Browns' success so far. Football games are won by teams that are strong in the trenches and that play in a disciplined, smart and physical manner. None of those things were true of the Browns for many years. Now the team has a very good offensive line, which is a big reason for this season's scoring explosion. Obviously, strong-armed quarterback Derek Anderson deserves a lot of credit as well and he has pair of great targets in Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow. Returner Joshua Cribbs consistently provides the Browns with good field position.

While a good offensive line, a dependable quarterback, good receivers and quality special teams play are very important, every Browns playoff team has had a good running back; Cleveland weather gets nasty late in the season and it is essential to be able to run the ball. It is scandalous that this franchise went two decades without having a 1000 yard rusher but that problem has been solved now: Jamal Lewis already has become just the second Browns running back since 1985 to rush for more than 1000 yards. He is on pace to finish the season with 1239 yards, which would be the most by a Browns running back since Mike Pruitt's 1294 yards in 1979. Lewis needs 216 yards in the last two games to become the only running back in Browns history other than Jim Brown to rush for 1300 yards in a season. Lewis runs with an attitude and his physical style can break an opponent's will. Recent Cleveland teams would not have had a chance to win a bad weather game like last Sunday's because they had no running game. Lewis pounded the Bills for 163 yards on 33 carries. I don't know what the CBS announcing crew was talking about when they said before the game started that it could be a high scoring affair. When is the last time that blizzard-like conditions produced a high scoring game? It was obvious from the start that this game had to be the Jamal Lewis Show. The Browns did a good job of mixing in some pass plays to keep Buffalo off balance but when money time arrived, Crennel told Lewis, "It's your time"; Lewis gained 69 yards on 16 carries in the fourth quarter to preserve the win.

The defense is still a work in progress but the good news is that it has gotten better during the season and shown the ability to make key stops at the end of games. It is still a stretch to see this team winning a championship this year but the Browns are not some fluky team backing their way into the playoffs; they are a legitimately good team with several Pro Bowl quality players, each of whom is young and still improving. Regardless of what happens the rest of the way this season, the future is bright for the Cleveland Browns--and who in September would have dreamed that those words could be uttered with a straight face in December?

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