Why did most Browns fans Sunday get the feeling the Browns had defeated the Cincinnati Bengals?
Maybe it's because the Browns played probably their best game of the season against one of the very good teams in the National Football League.
Maybe it's because their quarterback outplayed the Bengals' quarterback by a wide margin (with a little help from Deltha O'Neal).
Perhaps it's because their Browns did not cower, then take cover in wondrous awe of the scintillating and point-producing offense of the Bengals.
Did the better team win? Not really. The scoreboard said otherwise, but one came away from that game with the sense that the Browns had cleared a big hurdle in their maturing process.
Played the Bengals tough in their own backyard. Took it to them. Almost beat them.
Sure they lost on Shayne Graham's last-second field goal. And while it seemed to perpetuate the woe-is-me attitude that has become pervasive among those in Browns nation, it was hardly the dagger that some believe it was.
Entering the game as double-digit underdogs, the Browns were expected to roll over and die. The consensus forecast: This one was going to be ugly.
No way the Browns could stop the Bengals' offensive machine with Carson Palmer and his golden arm doing the Peyton Manning thing and the Johnson boys (Rudi on the ground, Chad through the air) plundering the Browns' defense.
Only one way to slow down these guys. Keep the ball away from them. Limit their touches. Lengthen their stay on the bench. Mission accomplished.
Give Palmer different looks in the secondary. They schemed him silly all afternoon. Showed him one look pre-snap, then switched to something entirely different at the snap. Made him look like Trent Dilfer. Mission accomplished.
Shut down Rudi Johnson and force Palmer to throw more. Oops. But they did slow him down in the second half until the final drive.
(Aside to Phil Savage: You need a stud, run-stuffing nose tackle and at least one pass-rushing demon via the next draft and/or free agency. Without them, expect more of the same next season. Give your linebackers some help up front.)
Make the Bengals' defense play honest. Keep the ball out of their hands. Win the time-of-possession battle. With one exception (and with a little help from O'Neal), mission accomplished.
The Browns did just about everything they set out to do with one notable exception: They didn't win.
It was a game they deserved to win, but they didn't have enough experience to pull off the upset. They're not good enough yet to know how to win such games.
It was a game the Bengals deserved to lose. They did not play well enough to win. But like very good teams, they somehow found a way to win. They now know how to win.
Winning games like this is what separates the poor teams from the mediocre teams, the mediocre teams from the very good teams, the very good teams from the elite teams and the elite teams from the championship teams.
Charlie Frye did a commendable job of running the Browns' offense. He made some plays Dilfer only dreams of making. (And didn't your heart flutter a bit when Dilfer began warming up on the sideline after Frye limped off the field with a banged-up knee in the second quarter?)
The rookie's biggest assets are his poise and ability to escape a collapsing pocket adroitly and swiftly.
He also seems to be unafraid to throw the ball before his receivers make their cuts. He gives his wideouts a chance to catch the ball with their hands and on the move. That can't be taught. Either you have it or you don't.
Frye, however, is in the infant stages of learning his craft, still prone to rookie mistakes.
He nearly made Graham's last-second boot moot with an ill-advised throw on a third-and-10 from the Cincinnati 12 with about four minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Browns trailing by three. The Browns needed that field goal.
Frye tried to force in a pass to Frisman Jackson in the end zone and hit O'Neal instead. The Bengals' cornerback must have been so stunned., he dropped it, paving the way for the tie as Phil Dawson knuckle-balled a 29-yard field goal. Too bad O'Neal didn't drop an earlier interception in the third quarter that led to the Bengals' go-ahead touchdown.
This was not just another disappointing loss in a season in a season fraught with them. This one had a sizable silver lining. If nothing else, it proved the Browns can play football on a level some critics believed they wouldn't reach until next season at the earliest.
They now have to take this same game to Oakland Sunday and prove they can do it again. And then again at home against Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the final two weeks of the season.
There is a consistency factor they must achieve before they can proceed to the next level.
If they fail, their performance against Cincinnati will be regarded as nothing more than a fluke.