There was no question amongst Browns fans that this past weeks game versus the Bengals was a must win contest if the team had any aspirations of playing meaningful football into late December. The Browns passed this gut check with flying colors overall, moving to the team to 3-0 at home for the first time since 1973. It was also the coming out party for a Browns offense that has been downright offensive so far this season. It had been eighteen years since Cleveland football fans were treated to a 300-yard passer, 100-yard rusher, and 100-yard receiver in the same game. The defense was nearly flawless, holding the Bengals to just 58 yards rushing, and limiting Carson Palmer to 11-25 for only 88 yards before the final and very meaningless Bungle drive late in the 4th quarter.
We all remember a similarly dominating performance from this team last season, when we decimated Arizona 44-6, only to go on to rattle off five straight losses … much to the behest of a fan base that expected more after that win over the Cardinals. Is this a team coming together? Or are the Bengals just that bad? We'll find out the answer over the next month and a half, as five of the Browns next six games are against the Eagles, Ravens, Steelers, Jets, and Patriots.
Death, taxes, and the Bengals sucking. It's comforting to know that there are some things in life you can count on year in and year out. The Bengals lived up to their scouting report. They lack beef inside defensively and are easy to run on. Quarterback Carson Palmer is a jittery dinker and dunker and rarely stretches the field with any effectiveness. They were 1-13 in third down conversions, and dropped at least seven or eight balls … including a sure touchdown by Kelley Washington and four by loudmouth Chad Johnson.
Speaking of Chad Johnson, I found it to be a sign of the times that the Browns secondary did not take more personal his pre-game taunts and special delivery of a common over the counter stomach medicine. Both Earl Little and Daylon McCutcheon made comments about not taking the stunt personally, because they "know Chad off the field". The Browns defensive backs also said little was said to Johnson in the way of trash talk on the field as well.
THE OPTIMIST AND THE PESSIMIST
Optimist: "What a game! This is exactly what this team needed. We're undefeated at home, 2-1 in the division, and right in the thick of the playoff race as we approach mid-season!"
Pessimist: "Check back in with me when we are able to move the ball against a team that does not have one of the worst defenses in football. Do you really believe this team is talented enough to win the ten games necessary to go to the post-season?"
Optimist: "I do. The offense is coming together. We have the best backfield in football with the addition of Terrelle Smith, and the talented young duo of Suggs and Green. The offensive line took a big step forward yesterday, and will continue to improve."
Pessimist: "The Bengals had been giving up 165 yards rushing per game. We didn't even get within twenty yards of that, and averaged only three yards per rush against them. Garcia committed several stupid turnovers, which would have killed us against any team with any talent whatsoever. And don't even talk to me about this offensive line. They have less depth than a wading pool, and struggled badly when Verba and Garmon had to leave with injuries."
Optimist: "Granted, this Bengal team has been a disappointment this season. But remember, they had two weeks to prepare for us, and were unable to do anything. They had very high expectations this year, and came in here as one of the few teams in the league as desperate for a win as this Browns team."
Pessimist: "Talk to me in a month. I remember how giddy this fan base was after we destroyed Arizona last year. We went on to lose five straight."
Optimist: "Alright, here's something we have to agree on. This defense is for real. This defense is good enough to win in January with."
Pessimist: "No defense that puts such little pressure on the quarterback can be deemed dominant. Injuries have hurt our depth, and our safeties are the most one-dimensional duo in the league."
Optimist: "How do you go through life this miserable?!? We're .500, and in the next five weeks, we have three home games and a trip to Cincinnati. The last four weeks of the season we play Buffalo, San Diego, Miami, and Houston! This team IS going to the playoffs, and you are in denial."
Pessimist: "Nice schedule spin. Five of our next six games are against the undefeated Eagles, Jets, and Patriots, a pissed off Ravens team in Baltimore, and the Steelers. And about that "soft" schedule you mention to end the year … three of the games are on the road, and the Chargers and Texans suddenly look like playoff contenders."
IN PHIL WE TRUST
It was a big day for the Dawson family. Phil's wife Shannon, a country music star, did a great job singing the National Anthem, and then Phil booted another couple field goals … running his consecutive field goal streak to 23, tying Matt Stover for the team record. The Browns are now 4-2 in games where Shannon sings the National Anthem.
Phil also did a very nice job on kickoffs yesterday despite blustery conditions, and has continued to show progress in that area. Phil is a great guy that I had the pleasure of getting to chat with at training camp. And he is quickly and quietly emerging into one of the top kickers in all of football.
I believe that I would be hard pressed to think of a team with a trio of backs that I would trade Suggs, Green, and Terrelle Smith straight up for.
I can't believe more teams did not pursue Terrelle Smith more aggressively as a free agent this off-season.
I believe that this football team is better than the 2002 version that went to the playoffs, but will be hard pressed to equal that teams nine wins.
Six games are in the books, and starting with this weekend's game at home against the Eagles, the Browns embark on yet another crucial six game stretch that will establish whether or not this team is a viable playoff contender.
Philly comes to town this week, then we have our bye week, which we follow up by traveling to the STD capital of the world to take on what is sure to be an angry Ravens team loaded with convicted felons. We then come back home to host likely playoff teams in Pittsburgh and the Jets. We follow that up with a trip to Cincinnati, and then come back home to play the Patriots.
This weekend's game is going to be tough. The Eagles are undefeated, have won every game this year by double digits, and are the best road team in football over the last five seasons. They are well coached, and solid in all three phases of the game. They lead the league in sacks, are only allowing opposing offenses to score twelve points per game, and have only trailed for seven minutes of one game this season.
The Eagles have been one of the best teams in football the last three seasons, and it seems they made All The Right Moves this off-season as well. They made aggressive and immediate splashes into the free agent market, striking quickly for Jevon Kearse and orchestrating a trade for Terrell Owens. Cornerbacks Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent were jettisoned in favor of third year men Lito Shepard and Sheldon Brown, both of whom have been phenomenal. Former Eagles Hugh Douglas and Jeremiah Trotter were brought back to add depth to the defense.
However, this is a home game. The Browns defense has delivered three dominating performances in the first three home games, and if they can do so again, the Browns will have a chance to win this game. Also, despite the fact that this is a hungry Eagles team with the added incentive of the Garcia-T.Owens saga to spice things up a bit, one can't help but think this could be a likely spot for an Eagle letdown with the Ravens, Steelers, and Cowboys coming up next on their schedule.
What this game provides is a true test on where this team stands heading into their bye week after getting mixed signals for the first month and a half of the season. The Eagles are amongst the leagues elite teams, and will provide a challenging test in all phases of the game. The Browns will enter this game as healthy as they have all season, and desperately need this win with the Steelers already at 5-1 and with the tiebreak advantage on us.
Let's shock the world fellas.