Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Better Kind of Bad

Over the past eight seasons, most of the Cleveland Browns' losses to the league's elite teams made you long for some kind of mercy rule. Sunday's game was different. Sure, the Browns made the kind of mistakes that you just can't expect to make against a team like New England and still be in the game, but they weren't pitiful.

I'm not looking to have a parade for the Browns or anything (although my pal Vinny may deserve one for nearly nailing the final score in his pre-game prediction), but not being pitiful against the Patriots is more important than it looks. It's possible for a bad team to string together a couple of decent weeks, and we've all seen that mirage in the past with Browns teams. But when you go to New England and actually make the Patriots break a sweat, you're getting better.

You've got to look past the Browns' three first half interceptions, one of which took a likely score off the board, and a late fumble that handed the Patriots their final touchdown, to find evidence of improvement. But if you do, I think there are plenty of reasons for optimism.

For example, Derek Anderson passed for 287 yards, which was the league's fifth best performance last week, and Braylon Edwards had 110 yards in receptions, which was good for fourth in the league and tops in the AFC. Six different Browns had multiple receptions on Sunday, and five of them caught at least one pass over 15 yards. Despite missing Jamal Lewis, the Browns still rushed for nearly 100 yards against one of the NFL's stingiest defenses.

Offensive stats like these against a team like New England are even more impressive when you realize that most of them came after the Browns spotted the Pats a double digit lead. New England's defense came hard with blitzes, and sacked Anderson three times, but Rob Chudzinski's offense was still able to move the ball and score touchdowns.

Defensively, the Browns still have big problems just about everywhere, and I'm not even going to try to spin their performance against the Patriots into a positive. Sure, the turnovers put the defense in a bad spot, and the Patriots scored only one touchdown in the second half. But Tom Brady was still Tom Brady, the Patriots rushed for almost 150 yards without Laurence Maroney in the lineup, and whenever New England needed a score, they got one.

If you'd like someone to tell you how the defense's performance against the Patriots shows that it's improving, read Steve King's story at the Browns website, and enjoy your stay on Fantasy Island.

Despite my concerns about the defense, I think you do need to give both sides of the ball some credit for what was perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the game, and that's the fight that the team showed in the second half. In recent years, we've seen several instances where the Browns responded to a team getting a big first half lead by, well, there's no other word for it -- quitting. Many of those performances came against division foes like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

That could've happened on Sunday, but it didn't. The Browns spotted the Patriots a 20-0 lead, and still came out swinging in the second half. That's the kind of effort you would expect from a professional football team, and for the first time in years, we may actually have one of those here in Cleveland.

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