Derry: Pretenders Back To Contenders?

The Cleveland Browns had us all convinced that the 2007 season was a mirage. Now, a win against the Redskins is what is needed to wave the doubts away...

For the first month of the 2008 season, the Cleveland Browns did a tremendous job of turning perception into reality concerning their opponents.

The Dallas Cowboys were perceived to have one of the best teams in the NFL and promptly went out and blasted the Browns, 28-10, in the season opener.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were perceived to have a strong defense and an average offense and managed to beat the Browns, 10-6.

In Week Three, the Baltimore Ravens were perceived to have an outstanding defense and a very weak offense and showed both in beating the Browns, 28-10. The 28 points were mostly the direct result of turnovers created by the Ray Lewis-led defense.

In the final pre-break game, the Cincinnati Bengals were perceived to have one of the worst teams in the NFL, in particular with quarterback Carson Palmer sidelined. True to form, the Bengals looked horrible in losing to the previously winless Browns, 20-12.

In the meantime, the perception that the Browns would be a legitimate playoff contender, possibly even a Super Bowl contender, was taking a beating. Three losses in four games led many to believe that 2007 was a mirage, the product of a very easy schedule and career years by several offensive players.

But just when it looked like coach Romeo Crennel's team would be exposed to the whole football world as pretenders, the Browns of ‘07 suddenly remerged on a beautiful evening at Cleveland Browns Stadium..

Derek Anderson looked like the "good" DA from a year ago; Braylon Edwards resembled the All-World receiver he has always claimed to be; the offensive line did a magnificent job of protecting Anderson and opening holes for Jamal Lewis; the defense, particularly the much-maligned safeties and corners, looked better than they have at any time in recent memory;

The result was a surprisingly easy 35-14 romp past the previously-unbeaten defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants on prime time Monday Night Football and before a raucous sellout crowd.

If you didn't know any better, you'd swear the teams switched uniforms just before kickoff. The Browns, playing in their first Monday Night Game since 2003, were fired up and playing at a level not seen in years.

Tons of credit has to go to the players for at least temporarily saving their season. At 2-3, the Browns still have a huge hill to climb if they want to overtake the 4-1 Steelers in the AFC North. But they are definitely now a wild card contender.

You also have to laud the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who has been on the hot seat after his high-powered unit managed just four touchdowns in four games, put in a few new wrinkles, including lining up multi-talented Josh Cribbs at quarterback a couple of times; a tricky double reverse that featured Cribbs; and several pass plays that featured tight ends Steve Heiden and Darnell Dinkins, who were filling in for Kellen Winslow Jr., out with an undisclosed illness.

Defensively, Mel Tucker's unit forced Eli Manning into throwing three interceptions, which tripled the Giants' total turnovers in their first four games.

Considering the level of competition, this was as dominating a performance as we have seen turned in by a Cleveland Browns team in recent memory. Maybe the only regular-season game that comes close was also on a Monday night back on Sept. 24, 1979, when the Browns totally dominated a very good Dallas Cowboys team, 26-7.

The best-ever overall performance by the Browns in my memory was the 1964 NFL Championship Game in which Cleveland blanked the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts, 27-0.

The Browns dominated this game so much that they never punted; did not have a single turnover; and did not allow a sack.

By halftime, the Browns had already racked up more offensive yards than they had in any of their first four games. Anderson showed why Crennel had enough faith in him to stick with him while others in the organization were calling for Brady Quinn to take over the starting duties.

Anderson, who came into the game with a sub-.500 completion mark, was 18 for 29 for 310 yards and two touchdowns.

"DA played to a level I have never seen him play," said Edwards, who caught five passes for 154 yards and a touchdown. He also had a 70-yard reception that set up a touchdown, plus caught a two-point conversion pass.

The Browns rushed 30 times for 144 yards, good for an excellent 4.8 yard per carry average.

The Browns' only negative stat of the day was the 10 penalties for 155 yards, nine of which were called on the offense. Every one of those penalties, ranging from illegal procedure, to motion, to illegal formation, to delay of game, came from a lack of concentration.

While the penalties didn't come back to haunt the offense against the Giants, there is no way the Browns can continue to average better than nine penalties a game and still entertain playoff hopes.

Crennel, who has been on the hot seat all season, will now face his toughest coaching job of the season. Somehow, he will have to get his team emotionally prepared to play against a very good Redskins team next Sunday.

If the Browns can somehow find a way to win at Washington, they will indeed be right back in the playoff picture. And the perception of their being a strong playoff contender will finally become a reality.

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