Late Sunday afternoon and into the early evening, the eyes of most NFL fans were focused 315 miles west of Cleveland. And for good reason. The Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots, the two heavyweights of the NFL, were exchanging haymakers in a battle to remain the last undefeated team.
News Flash: The rest of the world didn't come to a stop just because the NFL's two elite powerhouses were playing inside the RCA Dome. In Northeast Ohio, people were raking leaves. Children were playing in the park. Families were gathering for mom's delicious home-cooked dinner. And, oh yeah, the Browns were playing football. Incredibly exciting football.
There's no doubt the Colts-Patriots game, won by New England 24-20, was filled with plenty of drama. But there's no way it was any more intense and thrilling than the Browns' come-from-behind 33-30 overtime victory over the Seahawks.
In an NFL game that few people outside of Cleveland and Seattle seemed to realize was taking place, the Browns proved once and for all that they are now among a select group of teams just one level below the Colts and Patriots, the two teams clearly alone at the top.
Next are the second tier of teams, led by Dallas and Green Bay. The Browns, now 5-3 following their narrow victory over a very good Seattle team, are bunched in the group that also includes AFC North foes Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Maybe folks in the Steel City might not be too happy to be part of the second-banana bunch, but the people in Cleveland have to be ecstatic. One tier under the upper echelon is a far cry better than where the Browns have resided in recent years.
It's been a long, long time – six years, to be exact - since a Browns team last won back-to-back-to-back games. The victory over the Seahawks makes it three straight and sets up a critical battle for the AFC North lead next Sunday in Pittsburgh.
There were some unbelievable offensive numbers put up by the Browns against a solid Seahawk defense.
Jamal Lewis, despite rushing for just 37 yards, had a career-high four touchdowns.
Derek Anderson had career highs in passing yardage (364), attempts (48) and completions (29).
Kellen Winslow Jr., playing in obvious pain with an assortment of minor injuries, had a career-high 11 receptions for 125 yards.
And probably the most important stat of all was the fact the offensive line did not allow a single sack. Take a second to comprehend those two numbers. Forty-eight pass attempts. Zero sacks against a sack-happy defense. Incredible!
Take a bow Joe Thomas, Eric Steinbach, Hank Fraley, Seth McKinney, Kevin Shaffer, Ryan Tucker, who shared time with Shaffer at right tackle, and Lennie Friedman, who replaced an injured McKinney at right guard in the second half. Your number, ZERO, was as big as any offensive stat put up by your supposed "skill-position" teammates. Anyone who doesn't think pass protection is a skill doesn't know a thing about football.
Sunday's contest was actually two contests rolled into one.
In the first half, the Seahawks dominated every facet of the game and left a lot of people wondering whether the Browns' two-game win streak and 4-3 record coming into the game was a fluke. After all, their back-to-back wins came against winless teams, the Dolphins and Rams, and the overall record of the four teams they had defeated this year was a combined 6 wins and 24 loses coming into this weekend's action.
Against the Seahawks, the Browns had a chance to prove they could beat an above-average team, one that ranks in that distinguished group just below the Colts and Patriots.
Instead, what they showed in the first half was that they still have a long ways to go as they fell behind 21-9 at the break.
But it was an entirely different game after intermission and for a few very big reasons. The Browns did not abandon their game plan and give up on the run even though they had less than 10 yards rushing in the first half.
On their first series of the second half, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski did a masterful job of mixing the run and pass, with Anderson throwing to a variety of receivers.
Another key to the comeback was the fact the defense stopped allowing touchdowns, three in the first half, and limited the Seahawks to just three second-half field goals.
And the special teams, which had been anything but special in the first half when they allowed a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown and had a missed Phil Dawson extra point, became special once again in the second half.
At the beginning of the year, I was hoping the Browns could take baby steps this year. Instead, they have grown by leaps and bounds, at least from an offensive standpoint.
The Browns' offensive success this year isn't the result of one area of improvement. Instead, it's a combination of a multitude of things, including:
- The improved offensive line that finally has the quality and quantity to compete in this league.
- The development of Anderson, whose strong arm, quick release and ability to quit turning the ball over has made Brady Quinn nearly a forgotten part of this team.
- The arrival of running back Lewis, who is as tough a runner as we have seen in Cleveland since the days of Kevin Mack.
- The maturity of wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who is now making news on the field instead of off, and Winslow, who is listed as a tight end but is actually a wide receiver in disguise.
- And, possibly most important, the arrival of offensive coordinator Chudzinski, who seems to add a new wrinkle or two every week.
Romeo Crennel, who was on the hot-seat throughout his first two years as the Browns' head coach, is finally proving, much to the surprise of his critics, that you can be successful in this league even if you are a bit overweight or don't show a tremendous amount of emotion on the sideline.
Crennel's physical dimensions and low-key public personality become much less noticeable when he finds himself surrounded by great players.
The patience and confidence owner Randy Lerner and general manager Phil Savage showed in Crennel is being rewarded. Folks who were hoping former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher was going to be the Browns head coach next season are going to be disappointed.
Right now, the only area of concern, and it is big, big concern, is the performance of the defense. For whatever reason, coordinator Todd Grantham's defense has been lousy since the first preseason game.
Maybe there's been too much emphasis placed on building a potent offense. There's no doubt this coming off-season will be dedicated to upgrading the talent on the defensive side of the ball.
Grantham is an excellent coach, so much so that last year he was being mentioned for a couple of head coaching jobs at top colleges. Many people also assumed that if Crennel had been relieved of his duties during the 2006 season, Grantham was his likely replacement, at least on an interim basis.
But as the old saying goes, you can't make chicken salad out of chicken crap. Right now, the Browns need a lot of help in a lot of places on defense, but the starting point for improvement should be on the line.
Very little gets done if you don't have the horses up front. It's a nagging problem that won't go away until the Browns find some people who not only can consistently stop the run, but also be part of packages that put pressure on the opposing quarterback.
The Browns went into Sunday's game with seven sacks. They came out of Sunday's game with seven sacks. The only time they got to Matt Hasselbeck was when they had 12 men on the field.
When the defensive line is upgraded, and I'm confident it will get done with Savage calling the shots, the Browns will finds themselves very close to joining the Patriots and Colts on the NFL' top tier. It might even be able to happen by next season. When you take giant steps, it doesn't take long to reach your destination.