The NFL's first weekend of playoff football is an almost existential experience for seasoned Browns fans. Considering that the Browns have not qualified for the playoffs since 2002 and have not won a postseason game in nearly two decades, encountering the likes of the Texans, Saints, Giants and Broncos is a feeling reserved for those used to supporting a successful NFL franchise.
As for the rest of us…
Left to our own devices, the most a Browns fan can ask for during the playoffs is the catharsis involved in a dramatic Steeler loss – especially one that may have been symbolic of Pittsburgh's waning decline. Or, some satisfaction was found in the Bengals plummeting back to reality after an inexplicable run. And for the less perverse, the simple joy of watching an extraordinary offense such as the Saints is a temporary salve for yet another recently concluded lost season.
And as I am prone to do every January, I cannot stop myself from comparing the Browns to all of these winning teams. Both as a measuring stick of Browns' progress and a self-induced slice of agony, the first round of the playoffs leave a lot to be desired.
And a lot to be learned.
Imagine the following scenario. A rookie quarterback – one who was barely even drafted – leads an expansion franchise to its first playoff win. Outside of Cleveland, such things can happen. In Houston's particular case, an outstanding running game and opportunistic defense created such a scenario for T.J. Yates.
Along with some really simple, yet effective logic.
Instead of relying on Yates to throw the ball some 35 times against a veteran Bengal defense, Houston simply established their running game, which allowed Yates to utilize some timely play action and occasionally push the ball downfield. To further simplify things for their rookie quarterback, the Texans often employed multiple tight end sets – which limited the Bengals' ability to disguise defensive looks and confuse Yates.
Or, simply put – the Texans relied on what brought them to the playoffs in the first place.
Speaking of existential moments, it appeared that the Saints and Lions combined for more offensive production than the Browns could muster in half of a season. Watching these two offenses light up the scoreboard is a cruel diversion – especially when compared to the Browns' parade of dropped four-yard passes.
Obviously, the electric talent of the Saints' deep receiving corps and the freakish ability of the Lions' Calvin Johnson is something that the Browns clearly lack.
However, a more tangible area of improvement can be found among the Saints' interior offensive line – which is a place that the Browns are in process of upgrading. After watching nearly every Cleveland opponent send blitzers at the heart of the Browns' line, it was refreshing to see the Saints' offensive line continually give Brees a clean pocket. The Saints' interior trio gave Brees both the time and space to move around the pocket and step into throws. Never once was Brees lacking the confidence that takes a quarterback's eyes away from downfield receivers.
While addressing the offensive line is not exactly the solution to the Browns' lack of offensive playmakers, such a move could be a push in the right direction.
For several years now, I've realized that the Giants' Eli Manning is nothing more than an ordinary passer who claims an extraordinary lineage. While Manning has certainly proven himself in the NFL, his family name and hot playoff streak in 2008 has elevated him far beyond his natural talents. And while I scoff every time that Manning winces and short arms throws in advance of a charging defender, I also realize that Manning is one of the league's smartest players.
Considering the design of the Giants' offense – a downfield attacking offense characteristic of the early 1990's – Manning remains productive simply by playing the percentages. In a league governed by rules favoring quarterbacks and wide receivers, Manning can easily cheat an opposing defense with at least two pass interference plays a game. Such plays – like one against Atlanta on Sunday – can generate over 50 yards of offense.
Also, in terms of the Giants' receivers – whose catching ability rivals the Browns' collection of wideouts – such a strategy is a sound one. Of course, in New York, the Giants feature fast receivers who are operating within the confines of a vertical passing game – rather than slow, unreliable targets floundering in a tepid system, such as the one seen in Cleveland.
Every few years, I think I'm witnessing the physical decline of the Steelers – and then Pittsburgh goes and wins a Super Bowl. Covering my bets, I suspected the same thing was occurring this year. After all, the Steelers feature perhaps the league's worst offensive line and a defensive secondary that has been weak since the early Bill Cowher days.
However, what the Steelers lack in overall depth is compensated by the play of Ben Roethlisberger – who despite being a vile human being – is simply one of the league's top three quarterbacks. Or, in other words – where would the Steelers be without Roethlisberger?
Granted, the Steelers are now sitting at home for the remainder of the playoffs, but Roethlisberger has again proven how important it is for a playoff team to feature a physically tough quarterback. Beyond the Steelers' loss, Roethlisberger – even on a badly sprained ankle – makes everyone forget how poor his offensive line is. Even with a pass rush bolstered by Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, the Broncos' defense was still tentative against Pittsburgh's downfield passing attack.
Similarly, the Steelers fell for the Broncos' warped offensive attack – simply because the threat of Tim Tebow barreling ahead for a four-yard run was enough to bring two safeties to the line of scrimmage. Tebow's 80-yard overtime touchdown pass – a play that should never have happened – was predicated by the threat of a wildly unique and physical quarterback.
Of course, in our own little piece of the NFL world, this can only mean that the likes of Ryan Tannenhill is headed to Cleveland to throw four-yard dump off passes – while Robert Griffin III becomes the next Cam Newton.