'CARDIAC CRENNELS' HAVE 'BELIEVELAND' FOOTBALL FANS ROCKING AGAIN
I don't think I could write a cheesier headline, but I am too excited for the 2007 Cleveland Browns to care. (For the record, "Cardiac Crennels" is mine and "Believeland" belongs to Sports Illustrated. Pick up this week's issue or click above to read about how Phil Savage has finally put together the right combination for success).
At 7-4 and in the thick of the AFC wildcard chase, the Browns are a the cinderella darlings of the NFL this year. It has been difficult to follow them from Arizona, though I have done my best every Sunday with a combination Web radio snippets and gamecasts. They haven't been on local TV once this year, until this week. And it won't matter because I'll be at the game.
I don't care how you follow this team, whether it's on a Blackberry, satellite radio or Morse Code. The Browns are for real, and they are fun! Granted, they have a somewhat depleted defense that can loosen late in the game (though they're getting healthier and rookies like Kamerion Wimbley and Brandon McDonald are coming along). The Browns tend to make every game a bit of an adventure, even when it doesn't have to be, but the explosive combination of Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow II has bolstered the offense to the ranks of the league's best, not to mention Rob Chudzinsky, the offensive coordinator who does not run the Original Mattress Factory. They have the potential to score 30 or more every game with Derek Anderson delivering the ball to his talented receiver corps and handing off to the resurgent Jamal Lewis. If you can forgive Phil Dawson for his blocked field goal in Oakland (that never should have happened) and for coming up short in Pittsburgh--and you probably have, after the Baltimore heroics--then there is not another kicker in the NFL the Browns would rather have in a game's closing moments.
As the SI article details, the Browns don't even resemble that sorry team that the Steelers shellacked in Week 1. Since, the Browns are 7-3 (and should be 8-2 if not for the last-minute, field goal timeout fiasco in Oakland). They've dropped two games to the 8-3 Steelers, one to the Patriots (of course) and a controversial one in Oakland. Save the latter, the Browns have lost only to some of the league's best, and they've beaten the teams they're supposed to beat, which in itself is a sign of improvement because the '06 Browns weren't "supposed to beat" anyone. The rest of the schedule is favorable, and the Steelers still have to play New England and Jacksonville. With a little luck, the Browns could, could be division champs. They would have to run the table at 5-0 or go 4-1 with the Steelers losing two or three.
Even though it's fine to be excited, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. I'm sure we would all "settle" for the wildcard. If that's the case, the Browns should be gunning for Jacksonville, who sits above them with the No. 5 seed at 8-3 and plays at Indianapolis this weekend. Winning the No. 5 spot would give the Browns a shot at the AFC West winner, who would, no doubt, be an easier opponent than the Steelers, who squeaked out a 3-0 win over winless Miami in the Mud Bowl.
I, for one, cannot be excited enough about the Browns matchup this weekend in the desert, mostly because I live close enough to hurl a rock at University of Phoenix Stadium (and considering Ohio State's history there, I've thought about it). It will also be my first Browns game in person since 1993 in old Municipal Stadium. (The weather will be a little nicer this time with a gametime high temperature of 65 degrees.) The Cardinals unlikely and stupid overtime loss last week to San Francisco has de-hyped this game a little bit, but from Arizona fans' perspectives, this is the second biggest non-conference game of the year, with the Steelers being the first. A sizeable cluster of Ohio natives and Browns fans now reside in the Valley of the Sun, including yours truly, and we will be out in full force Sunday afternoon.
I have followed the Cardinals a little this year, trying to decide whether I want to adopt them as my No. 2 team (like I have done with the Diamondbacks and the Suns). Before Leinart was injured, first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt had the Cardinals really clicking and poised to make a playoff charge in the weak NFC West. But the Cards have not done what the Browns have, win the close ones against teams they should beat. Kurt Warner has stepped in and battled his own injuries to keep the Cardinals in it, and their playoff lives are on the line Sunday. Since talent is in no short supply, especially for the Cardinals offense, if they are motivated by their close loss last week and the urgency of the situation, we should see a fantastic, high-scoring game. However, if this team proves to have little character and little energy, that will be a huge boost for the Browns.
I expect this to be your typical Browns game with them starting strong and building a two-touchdown lead or so with the Cardinals closing the gap and making it very close at the end. I hope to post pictures and video from my upper deck perch, but before I go, let me leave you with a prediction: in a high-scoring affair, the Browns win again off Phil Dawson's toe, 34-31.