The Owl: This Is How It's Done

Browns fans watching today's Steelers-Broncos game have a measuring stick for how far the Browns have to go. So says the mysterious and wise Owl, who realizes that Browns fans have to hold their noses and look at the noxious teams involved in today's game to see where the Browns need to be...

Followers of the Browns have the well-earned reputation of being the smartest football fans in the country. Players say so when they arrive, and those who play elsewhere when their careers end say the same thing - proof they are not reciting a company line to make fans feel important.

On Sunday Browns fans will have the chance to show just how smart they are. It's okay to be a Browns fan first, but be a football fan second. That means find a way to enjoy the Broncos-Steelers battle for the AFC championship. Appreciate the talent on the field, regardless the uniforms the athletes wear.

Sure, you probably don't like the Broncos because they deprived the Browns in three AFC championship games in the 1980s. Hard to believe it has been 19 years since The Drive, isn't it?

And, well, since the other team is from Pittsburgh we don't need to go there. But both teams know how to win, and that is something the Browns still must learn.

What do the Steelers and Broncos have in common? In a word, continuity. Bill Cowher has coached the Steelers since 1992 and Mike Shanahan has coached the Broncos since 1995. Pat Bowlen, the Broncos owner, had opportunities to fire Shanahan in the last seven years but resisted because he knows Shanahan can coach.

The Rooney family could have deemed Cowher's message stale and gone in a different direction a few years ago, but they also resisted.

As painful as it is to admit, the Steelers are Exhibit A when it comes to building a football team. It starts in the trenches, and Cowher knows it. The Pittsburgh guards, Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons are first round draft picks and center Jeff Hartings was originally a first-round draft choice by the Lions in 1996. Hartings played guard in Detroit, but the Steelers wanted him as a center to replace Dermontti Dawson. It proved to be an excellent signing; the Steelers are an excellent running team because of their interior line.

Look how strong the Steelers are up the middle. On offense they have running back Willie Parker, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Hartings. On defense they have nose tackle Casey Hampton, inside linebacker James Farrior and strong safety Troy Polamalu.

Every one of those players, with the exception of Parker, was a first-round draft choice. Farrior was the eighth overall pick by the Jets in the first round of the 1997 draft and signed by the Steelers in free agency in 2002. Larry Foote, the other inside linebacker, was a fourth-round draft choice in 2002. Farrior is the more active of the two.

Football coaches believe they have to work 18 hours a day to do their jobs properly. It doesn't matter if they work 30 hours a day if the talent is not there, as Romeo Crennel was reminded this season.

The Steelers outscored the Browns 75-21 in two games in 2005.  Players and coaches were embarrassed by the 41-0 loss to the Steelers on Christmas Eve and rightfully so. Crennel stood before a room filled with reporters and said he was outcoached. Maybe so, but the bottom line is the Browns were out-talented, pure and simple.

I'm picking the Steelers to beat Denver. Roethlisberger is better than Jake Plummer and the Steelers have better lines, both offensively and defensively.

The only chance Denver has is to establish the run. If Plummer is forced to pass, as Peyton Manning was, he will be in deep trouble. The Steelers sacked Manning five times. They could get to Plummer seven or eight times.

As bad as the Browns were at sacking the quarterback, the Broncos were worse. They ranked dead last in sacks per pass attempt. Roethlisberger will chew up the Denver secondary. Champ Bailey is an excellent cornerback for the Broncos, but he can cover only one side of the field.

So watch the AFC championship game and think about what the Browns have to do to be as good as the two teams playing in it. You don't have to cheer for the Steelers to admire how they've been built or how well they play.

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