Derry: Sunday Is Critical Yet Again

A loss a Sunday would turn the hard task of making the playoffs into one that is nearly impossible, according to OBR columnist Frank Derry. When you start off in an 0-3 hole, every game after that becomes critical to keeping hope alive...

It's a cliché used far too often by NFL head coaches. "Next week's game is the most important one of the year." More often than not, it's not true. But coaches like to say those words because they believe it somehow motivates the players.

This year, when you hear Browns head coach Romeo Crennel utter those words, you can believe him. The Browns, having dug themselves a very deep hole by losing three straight to begin the year, are in a situation where every game is vital, beginning with Sunday's rematch against the Baltimore Ravens.

A victory would give the Browns a 4-4 record at the midway mark and leave them within two games of a wildcard spot. However, a loss would mean a three game deficit with only eight games to play.

That would be a tough row to hoe considering the final eight weeks include games at Buffalo (5-2), Tennessee (7-0), Philadelphia (4-3) and Pittsburgh (5-2). That's an overall record of 21-7 for the remaining four road games.

Even more impressive is the cumulative 12-2 home record for those teams, including 4-0 Tennessee, 3-0 for Buffalo, 3-1 for Philadelphia and 2-1 for Pittsburgh, where the Browns never seem to win no matter what the situation. The Browns will be decided underdogs in all four games.

The Browns' home schedule is a bit easier with Houston (3-4), Cincinnati (0-8), Denver (4-3) and Indianapolis (3-4). If the Browns could easily beat the World Champion New York Giants at home, there's no reason they can't beat all of those four teams.

Still, they'll need at least one road win to have any chance at making the playoffs. And that's assuming they beat the Ravens in the rematch. Remember, Baltimore won the first encounter, 28-10, in Week Three, so this game won't be easy.

A loss on Sunday would mean the Browns would not only have to sweep at home, but also win at least two road games, possibly three. That might be an impossible task considering the level of competition.

Thus, Crennel wasn't just blowing smoke when he indicated the Ravens game is critical.

''And that's the way it's going to be the rest of this season,'' he said. ''But if my guys can come to play the way they played (against the Jaguars), then we're going to be in it and we're going to have a chance.''

Of course, that's a mighty big "if" considering that consistency has not been the Browns' forte this year. In fact, inconsistency has been the operative word for the Browns.

When this team plays well, it can beat anyone in the league. When it does not perform up to its ability, then even a team as miserable as the Bengals becomes a difficult foe.

One positive for the Browns is that they are relatively healthy. Another positive is the defense. After having long been a weakness, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker's group has done a solid job ever since the season-opening blowout loss (28-10) to the Cowboys.

The 28 points scored by the Ravens were mostly the result of turnovers by Derek Anderson and Company. The Ravens' longest scoring drive on that day was just 43 yards.

The acquisition of nose tackle Shaun Rogers from the Lions for cornerback Leigh Bodden and a 2008 third round draft choice is quickly turning out to be the best trades ever made by general manager Phil Savage.

Rogers is the best at his position since Michael Dean Perry dominated the middle for the Browns from 1989-94. In fact, Rogers is playing right now better than Perry ever did. Hopefully, he'll still have this same passion in years to come.

The trade looks even better because the Browns don't really miss Bodden due to the fact Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald are emerging as excellent corners, thanks in part to the excellent pass rushing skills of Rogers.

Wright and McDonald still get burned on occasion, but overall their play has been solid considering both are in just their second year in the NFL.

The defense gave up only two touchdowns per game in October, which should be good enough on most occasions considering the potential of the offense, which last year averaged 25 points per game.

There's no reason this team can't score at least 21 points a game, home or away. And if they do that, and the defense continues to shine, then the Browns will have a shot at the playoffs. Provided they come to play the way they did against the Giants and Jaguars.


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