"The gloomy month" – Joseph Addison, English essayist (1672-1719), on the month of November

WADHAMS, Mich. - Three weeks ago, the Cleveland Browns were basking in the glow of a convincing victory over the loathsome Baltimore Ravens. Players were quoted as saying that after beating the Ravens, who should the Browns fear?

Apparently, the Chicago Bears.

The ink on Cleveland's unlikely overtime defeat at Soldier Field is dry in the record books. Shock and dismay - from players and fans alike - is quickly and appropriately turning to anger. It will be up to Butch Davis to focus that terrible resolve into a finely honed weapon to smite the dreaded Steelers on Sunday. He's had a week to deconstruct Pittsburgh, although the formula for success against the Steelers seems straightforward:

1. Stop Jerome Bettis up the middle. He can't consistently turn the corner, and Cleveland's lateral speed at linebacker is vastly improved.

2. Force Kordell Stewart to throw. He hasn't been asked this season to win a game on his own.

3. Force the Steelers to kick field goals. Kris Brown's four misses last week wasn't a fluke. He psyche is shaken.

With any luck, Cleveland has digested those simple lessons. In the meantime, let's examine what was learned from the collapse at Chicago:

"Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall."

That quote, like the one atop this work, is from Mr. Addison. Though he's been dead for 282 years and was known in life for his translations of Virgil's Georgics, he might as well have been commenting on the fiasco last Sunday at Soldier Field. With any luck, the Browns have learned that vanity of spirit in the NFL is both deadly and stupid while there are ticks on the clock.

Another critical lesson: Apply boot to throat and don't let up.

For a wider perspective on this, let us put the coup de grace theory in the context of the Fourth Afghan War, presently being fought in Central Asia by Great Britain and the United States. The gang of weak-kneed and milquetoast Boston Globe columnists - those not fired for cribbing jokes or outright lies - has been whimpering in recent days about the war in Afghanistan, bemoaning the use of B-52 bombers, cluster munitions and other tools designed to destroy things and kill people. Naturally, while calling for a halt to bombing, they offer no practical alternatives or solutions.

It's like calling for a football team to not throw the deep ball because the other team can't stop it.

What the columnists of brittle constitution fail to understand is basic military philosophy. In war, you apply constant pressure to the enemy to disrupt his ability to attack you. That is why the military has weapons - to use them. Otherwise, the other guy gets a chance to rest and regroup. Relentless pursuit is a military truism advocated by the Great Captains since the dawn of warfare. It was as true in the days of Sun Tzu as it is today.

If the Cleveland Browns had been unrelenting in their systematic destruction of the Chicago Bears, the standings in the AFC Central Division would look very different this week. Instead, a relaxed team suffered a shameful defeat.
Now, this isn't a license to be asinine when it comes to piling on, a la Brian Billick. It's one thing to assure a large margin of victory on a team capable of rallying from great deficits, like Chicago. It's quite another to run up the score on a second-year expansion team without most of its skill players. One is smart, one is classless. We all know which path Pretty Brian takes.

Butch Davis and his coaching staff have likely taken it all to heart. The Steelers shouldn't expect any mercy Sunday. If the opportunity to pile on points arises, it must be snatched. If the defense - and Courtney Brown in particular - gets the chance to maul Kordell Stewart on every down, seize the chance. Any chance of a rally must be snuffed with lightning speed. Crush the spirit, unleash chaos and pursue until the final gun.

To sum up this lesson, let us visit another famous quotation, this one from Shakespeare's Marc Antony in Julius Caesar: "Cry havoc, and let loose the dogs of war!"

THE FUTURE IS NOW: Cleveland has teased the NFL. Victories over Detroit, San Diego, Jacksonville and Baltimore - and near-victories against Seattle and Chicago - are a nightmare for oddsmakers, prognosticators and commentators. Setting a line on Cleveland is real work. Week to week, it's impossible to know which team will take the field - the one that sent Baltimore's Purple Horde home limping, or the squad that disintegrated at Cincinnati.

Now the Browns enter the most critical portion of their schedule. After beating Pittsburgh this weekend, a road game at Baltimore is followed by games at Cleveland Browns Stadium against Cincinnati and Tennessee. It's make or break time.

If the Browns go 3-1 in that stretch, a playoff berth is a distinct possibility. The Browns would be 7-4 with a winnable road game in Belichick Country followed by a home game against the Jaguars. Call it Critical Schedule Span II.

The season's final three weeks are brutal. Cleveland plays, in order, at Green Bay, at Tennessee and at Pittsburgh to end the season.

Not exactly the stuff of which winter dreams, to borrow an expression from F. Scott Fitzgerald, are made.

In the meantime, the field of contenders will sort itself out. Various dramas will unfold as the contenders are separated from the dilettantes. If - and this is a mighty big if - the Browns can finish the season 9-7, that might be enough for a wild card. Hell, in 1985 and 1989, that record was good enough to win the AFC Central Division.

Dare we hope?

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