Browns-Eagles: Analysis and Outlook

<BR>David Carducci looks at what the loss to the Eagles says about the Browns chances moving forward. The Browns pushed a tough team, and displayed an exciting brand of football on Sunday, but now face four weeks of playing teams who are combined 20-4. How can they come out of the gauntlet with their play-off hopes intact?<BR><BR>

CLEVELAND - Is there such a thing as a moral victory in the National Football League?

Take a poll in the Cleveland Browns locker room late Sunday afternoon and it's likely you'd find a different answer with every locker you visit.

The Browns nearly pulled off a stunner, sending the unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles to overtime before losing 34-31 on a 50-yard David Akers field goal that just squeaked over the cross bar.

To some players, giving the Eagles their toughest test of the season was a reason to head into the bye week feeling good about their hopes for the second half. To others, it was just another loss in a disappointing 3-4 start.

As a friend tried to comfort the Browns defensive backs in one corner of the locker room, safety Michael Jameson looked up with pain in his face and said, "yeah, we played better. But we have to win. Winning is all that matters in this business."

It was a realist view coming from a frustrated player, but it was not completely accurate.

In an NFL built around television ratings and jersey sales, it's actually far worse for a team to be boring than to lose.

And for the first time in a while, the Browns were anything but boring during a loss. That's a big step for a team whose losses have been so ugly this season that the games didn't even provide good background noise during a Sunday-afternoon nap on the couch.

It's also a reason for fans to stay interested and optimistic as the Browns prepare for what they hope will be a second-half playoff run.

Unfortunately, the Browns can't afford to settle for just playing a competitive and entertaining brand of football. If they really want to play in the postseason, at some point they have to do more than just put up a good fight in games against top-level opponents like the Eagles.

When the Browns come back from their bye week, four of their next five games will be against the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets and New England Patriots. Those four teams are either in first place or one game back in the AFC East and North Divisions, and they boast a combined record of 20-4.

Come away with four more moral victories in those games against teams in the Eagles caliber and the Browns, assuming they beat the lowly Cincinnati Bengals, will own a 4-8 record in mid-December. At that point, they would already be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs or need to run the table in the final four games (including road trips to Buffalo, Miami and Houston) just to keep any slim postseason hope alive.

Realistically, the Browns are going to need to pull off one major upset, and preferably two, in the next five weeks if they want to make the playoffs.

Sunday's moral victory at the very least should keep hope alive that an upset or two could be in the making.

Ask head coach Butch Davis or quarterback Jeff Garcia, and they will tell you that Sunday offered proof that the Browns once-struggling offense is starting to turn a corner.

Garcia still makes more mistakes than big plays in the vertical passing game, but when he avoids forcing the ball into coverage deep downfield and focuses on what he does best, rolling out and dinking and dunking the ball down the field, he can be effective.

William Green and Lee Suggs are starting to conjure memories of the one-two punch Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner brought to the Browns backfield in the mid 1980's.

Even the receiving corps looks promising. Dennis Northcutt is finally being used as more than just a glorified possession receiver, and in two weeks he will be joined by a healthy Andre Davis and a talented playmaker in newcomer Antonio Bryant, who by then will have a better understanding of the Browns playbook.

Unfortunately, Sunday also uncovered several concerns that need to be addressed if the Browns are serious about a playoff run.

Outside of always dependable place kicker Phil Dawson, very little is special about the Browns special teams. Rookie punter Derrick Frost had an ugly game Sunday, averaging just 39.6 yards per boot, including a dreadful 30-yarder to the Philadelphia 22-yard line in overtime after the Browns decided to try to pin the Eagles deep instead of going for a fourth-and-one near midfield.

Problems in the kick-return game are also becoming the norm. After switching from Dee Brown to Richard Alston, then back to Brown in the first month, the Browns finally released Brown prior to Sunday's game. That decision forced Andre King to pull a fill-in double duty as both a kick returner and starting receiver with Davis injured.

When King suffered an injury of his own in the first half, Frisman Jackson and James Jackson took turns returning kicks. Both lost fumbles.

The Browns defensive scheme is also becoming a major question mark. Their reliance on cover-two may be effective against teams that are weak at the quarterback position, but give a Donovan McNabb time to set up and throw in the pocket, as the Browns did Sunday, and he will put up big numbers.

At some point, the Browns are going to have to take more chances and not just hope that the front four will eventually generate some natural pressure. Otherwise, quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger, Chad Pennington and Tom Brady are going to have a field day in the coming weeks.


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