Passan: Representative to Competitive

Rich Passan isn't easily impressed. He's a skeptic, a "show me" type of guy, and unafraid to be critical even in the face of criticism on the OBR forums. Despite a loss on Sunday, though, he's seeing continued progress from the Browns club...

As unbelievable as this undoubtedly sounds, the Browns did not play that bad a game against the New England Patriots Sunday.

Sure, the Pats doubled them on the scoreboard. And of course, Tom Brady threw three more touchdowns passes.

But I still had a good feeling about the Browns, who seem to have climbed a rung on the getting-better ladder and elevated themselves from representative to competitive.

That's right, competitive. They were neither embarrassed nor humiliated by the Patriots. They fell behind, 20-0, and were headed in that direction, but battled back against a damn good team. The fact they came back at all is significant.

In the past, fighting back would have been the last thing they would do. It would not have happened. They would have crumbled. They would have slinked off to lick their wounds and felt sorry for themselves.

The scoreboard said the final deficit was 17 points, which was closer than I thought it would be, but it felt more like a 10-point loss since the Pats achieved the final score with a fumble return for a touchdown in the last minute when the Browns played desperation football.

Fact is the Browns got beat by a team that, in all likelihood, will represent the American Football Conference next February in Glendale, Ariz. But for the second week in a row, they showed up ready to play.

It was as though someone had put a defibrillator to the Browns' offense in the second half. And when they climbed back to within 10 points at 20-10, the Patriots did what all very good teams do in that situation. They kicked it up another notch and knocked the advantage back up to 17 on the ensuing possession. Easily. That is something to which the Browns should aspire.

They did not throw up the white flag after the Patriots stormed out to that big lead by playing some opportunistic football, courtesy of Derek Anderson, who was victimized by his own bad throws, deflections and a below-average performance by his offensive line.

This team is beginning to grow. It is beginning to believe in itself.

But if it wants to become a very good – and possibly great – football team, a good start would to keep the game film of Sunday's loss and watch only the Pats. Study and note what they do to win games. Concentrate on how they pieced together this victory.

Bill Belichick's team did not play its best game, but still managed to win. There are those who will suggest the Pats were looking ahead to the Dallas Cowboys this week, accounting for the less-than-peerless performance.

Anyone who knows Belichick knows that isn't the case. Not even close. His teams always arrive focused on the task at hand. If they don't, they hear about it.

Progress was the key word against New England.

The Browns made Randy Moss looked almost normal due to some fine work in the secondary. Surely, there was no way the Browns could shut him down after he scored seven touchdowns in his first four games with New England. Three catches for 46 yards suggests otherwise.

That's progress.

Brady did not look like a quarterback automaton despite throwing the three touchdown passes. He came into the game with a gaudy 79% completion rate in his first four games this season. Against the Browns, he was a human-like 58%.

That's progress.

The Patriots' offense has been so good this season, Chris Hanson punted only five times in the first four games. The Browns forced six punts Sunday.

That's progress.

The Cleveland defense, playing less aggressively than hoped, nevertheless forced three 3-and-outs and one 4-and-out in 12 New England possessions. In the first four games of the season, Brady had only five 3-and-outs in 38 possessions.

That's progress.

Brady's timing with his receivers was less than stellar. Why? Good coverage, which is difficult without anything resembling a pass rush. On several occasions, he was forced to get rid of the ball because of the solid coverage.

The Patriots won because they played intelligent football, never-give-up football, the small-things-count kind of football. They did whatever was necessary to win. They did the little things.

And when the Browns learn to do those little things, positive results will begin to shape them.

Like tackling better (Leigh Bodden on Donte Stallworth's first-quarter touchdown and Wes Welker on a third-and-3 at the Cleveland 31 early in the fourth quarter with the score 20-10), covering tight ends better (Sean Jones on Ben Watson) and not dropping interceptions in the shadow of your goal line (Eric Wright in the first quarter).

The little things like questionable playcalling by offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who was overcome by a bad case of brain flatulation on Cleveland's first series of the game.

The Browns moved 65 yards smartly to the New England 1 on the opening drive with a chance to take a 7-3 lead. Anything wrong with running the ball on first and goal at the 1? Guess so. First play, Anderson fails to hit Joe Jurevicius on a fade route.

What's wrong with mano y mano football? Why throw? The Patriots are on their heels. Keep them there.

Once the Browns start doing the little things on both sides of the ball, the turnaround will be complete.

Some blemishes still remain, the chief being a defensive line that is more offensive than defensive and an offense that has trouble stitching together four good quarters in a row.

Up next are two games that should seem like a breeze after the tough five-game gauntlet that began the season. Miami (this Sunday at CBS) and St. Louis after the bye week are winless. Suddenly, these games have become very winnable.

The Dolphins and Rams will provide good litmus tests for the Browns, whose return to respectability very well could hang in the balance. Anything less than two victories could invalidate the progress they've made the last two-plus games.

A 4-3 record after seven games? It's looking more possible than impossible.

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