By this time just about every year, the Browns had been relegated to a status somewhere between afterthought and completely forgotten.
The fifth-string network broadcasters were assigned to their games. Opponents were considering them a breather on their schedules. And they were in first place only if you read the standings upside down.
But by Week 12 in 2007, the well-known announcers were handling their games, they were feared by their foes and they were at least almost atop the AFC North – even if you examined the standings right side up.
Yet with success comes respect. And with respect comes a bullseye on your back. Teams were now getting up to the play the Browns. In the past, all they had to do was get up – in the morning – to play the Browns.
"The only thing I try to do is keep them grounded, not let them get too big of a head," Browns coach Romeo Crennel told clevelandbrowns.com as his team prepared to play at Arizona. "I have to remind them that last year nobody wanted to talk to you. This year, you've become popular all of a sudden. You just didn't become better looking overnight."
Neither did the usually woeful Arizona Cardinals. The perennial also-rans were an uncharacteristically respectable 5-6 heading into the week and on the periphery of the playoff race. Though their battle against the visiting Browns was critical for both teams, it was even more so for Arizona, which would be virtually eliminated with a defeat.
To make matters a bit more tenuous for the Cardinals, brilliant receiver Larry Fitzgerald would be sidelined with a hamstring injury. Opponents of the Browns found it difficult enough outscoring their blossoming offense with a full complement of players.
Despite a victory in Baltimore two weeks earlier, the Browns had yet to prove they could consistently win on the road. They entered having lost three of five away from the friendly fans and Crennel – as coaches tend to be – was concerned entering the game.
"It's going to be an important one," he said. "(Arizona) has been playing pretty good. I know they had a tough loss (to San Francisco in overtime) last week, but I'm sure they'll bounce back. We're going to have to play pretty good out there to win the game."
They didn't play well. And they didn't win the game.
Was it Roderick Hood? Or was it Robin Hood?
It was Roderick Hood, but he did take from the Browns and give to the Cardinals. The Arizona defensive back stole a pass from quarterback Derek Anderson and sprinted 71 yards for a touchdown just four minutes into the game that would set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
The Browns never fully recovered. They trailed throughout their 27-21 defeat.
Four turnovers doomed the guys from Cleveland. So did Edgerrin James, the former all-world back of the Indianapolis Colts who showed he can still play with a 114-yard rushing performance against albeit one of the league's most porous run defenses. It was James' second foray over the 100 yard mark in 2007.
Cleveland fell behind 14-0 with five minutes remaining in the first quarter on a 5-yard touchdown reception by Leonard Pope from Kurt Warner – another former All-Pro finding the fountain of youth in Arizona.
In a pickle early, the Browns were forced to play catch-up and nearly mustered enough to come back. They closed the gap on a 37-yard field goal by Phil Dawson and 6-yard scoring scamper by Jamal Lewis with only a minute
left in the half.
Both teams played lockdown defense through more than 14 minutes of the third quarter when the teams quickly traded touchdowns. The Cardinals took a 21-10 lead on a 1-yard pass from Warner to Bryant Johnson, but the Browns answered just 43 seconds later on a 67-yard bomb from Anderson to Braylon Edwards, who finished with a game-high seven catches for 149 yards.
Cleveland chopped the deficit to 21-18 on a two-point conversion pass from Anderson to Kellen Winslow, but would get no closer. In the fourth quarter, two field goals by the Cardinals' Neil Rackers were sandwiched around one by Dawson.
The Browns, however, had one last hope. And that was a 37-yard pass from Anderson to the left sideline of the end zone that Winslow leaped up and grabbed. He landed out of bounds, but he and his teammates claimed he was pushed. The officials ruled differently, however, and they could only trudge back to their locker room in defeat.
The defense had taken the bulk of the blame in nearly every game the Browns had lost in 2007. But this time the offense had to share in that criticism.
Just a week earlier, Winslow was standing in a winning locker room talking about striving for perfection.
He was doing the same on this Sunday, but with quite a different tone in his voice.
"We're fighting for perfection, and we weren't even close today," he told the News-Herald.
Certainly not, but if the officials had ruled he had been forced out of bounds on the final play of the game, Winslow would have been celebrating a 28-24 victory and an 8-4 record. Instead, he was lamenting a critical loss for a team battling for a playoff spot.
Edwards could have been enjoying the fruits of his labor after one of his finest performances as a pro. He too was wishing the call had gone the other way, but he wasn't complaining. It's not as if the 2007 Browns had a break coming.
"If we had gotten that call, I would have said, ‘Browns to the Super Bowl!'" exclaimed Edwards, who now had more than 1,000 yards receiving on the season. "We've been getting call after call after call. If we had gotten that one, it would have spoken volumes about the turnaround in Brownstown. We didn't deserve to win."
Anderson chimed in as well, offering that though he believed Winslow should have been given credit for a touchdown, he and his teammates didn't perform well enough to earn the victory.
"From what I saw, (Winslow) got one foot in and the other guy pushed him out," said Anderson, who finished with 304 yards passing and two interceptions. "But there's nothing we can do about that. It shouldn't have come down to that to begin with."
The Hood interception was far from the only mistake that cost the Browns. Josh Cribbs, who had been nearly flawless as a kick returner all season, muffed a punt. The Cardinals recovery on the Cleveland 22 led to the touchdown pass from Warner to Johnson.
"I've got to look at myself in the mirror," Cribbs admitted.
So did his teammates. It had become obvious that no team was a pushover on the road for the Browns. Next on the schedule was the New York Jets, who were going nowhere. But the game was not to be played in Cleveland. The Browns understood that if they didn't perform better than they had on this Sunday, they could soon be playing out the string just like the Jets.