It’s been quite a coming-out party for the Cleveland Browns.
Four weeks ago, the Browns were 1-5 after losing in Pittsburgh for the seventh straight year. Eric Mangini was rumored to be on the chopping block, and rookie quarterback Colt McCoy was being rushed into service because of Seneca Wallace’s injury and Jake Delhomme’s delhommeness.
In their last three games the Browns have beaten the Super Bowl champion Saints, outplayed the New England Patriots in a 34-14 pasting, and yesterday gave the New York Jets all they could handle in an overtime loss that was more encouraging than disappointing for the Dawg Pound and the rest of their sports-beleaguered city.
The first Ryan Bowl, matching Jets head coach Rex Ryan against his twin brother Rob, Cleveland’s defensive coordinator, promised to provide some answers about the true identities of the two teams. Did the Browns simply catch two good teams looking past them? Are the Jets a serious Super Bowl contender?
On the Browns’ side, the answer is an unequivocal no. This is an improving football team, with a powerful running game behind a big and effective offensive line. The Browns opened holes for Peyton Hillis throughout the first half and gave McCoy time to find receivers on delayed short crossing patterns. Cleveland was winning the battle up front against the Jets, scoring twice in the first quarter against a team that had only allowed only two other first quarter scores all year.
Colt McCoy may be a rookie, but he has a cool confidence in the pocket and on the move. (He’s actually two months older than New York’s third-year quarterback Mark Sanchez.) He took a late lick from linebacker Bart Scott on a first quarter drive and came back with a completion to Ben Watson that set up Hillis’s 12-yard touchdown run. Despite a tough second half when the Jets defense stiffened, he led the Browns on a ten-play, 59-yard drive in the final three minutes to send the game into overtime.
After Cleveland forced the Jets to punt in the extra period, McCoy hit Chansi Stuckey with two passes that brought the Browns into field goal range, but Stuckey’s fumble ended the threat, and the Browns never came close to scoring again.
Only Adrian Peterson has gained more yards on the ground this season against Rex Ryan’s defense than Hillis’s 82, most of them before halftime. In the second half, though, Cleveland was without its multipurpose weapon Joshua Cribbs, who left the game in the second quarter with a foot injury. The Browns had just one first down in the second half before their final drive, while the Jets’ offense ground out two long drives that consumed most of the third and fourth quarters and left the Cleveland defense exhausted even before the overtime.
The Jets kept the Browns’ defense on the field for nearly 23 minutes of the second half, and another 9 minutes in the fifth quarter. This no doubt contributed to how the final possessions of the game played out.
Nick Folk missed a 47-yard field goal – his third miss of the game – giving Cleveland possession at their own 37. After a three-and-out, they punted to the Jets’ nine. A catch-and-run by LaDainian Tomlinson and a completion over the middle to Dustin Keller brought the Jets to midfield. A holding call pushed the Jets back, then on third-and-14, Mark Sanchez threw deep to Braylon Edwards, but cornerback Joe Haden had the receiver blanketed. Haden might have been better off knocking the ball down, but he intercepted and was tackled immediately, pinning his offense back at its own 3 with 1:35 to play.
McCoy took a shot, throwing a deep incompletion intended for Watson. The Browns ran Hillis for two yards, then took the clock as far down as they could before calling a timeout. On third down at the 5, McCoy was nearly trapped in the end zone but squirmed out to the 2. The Jets called their final timeout, awaiting Reggie Hodges’s punt from his own end line.
Hodges punted deep, to the Jets’ 45, and Jim Leonhard returned it to the Cleveland 37. With twenty-four seconds to go, the Jets had time for a quick completion, a spike, and a long field-goal attempt. They got the completion, to Santonio Holmes, who escaped a triangle of defenders at the 30 and broke free for the winning touchdown.
For the Jets, it was the second consecutive narrow escape in overtime. They’re 6-2, but they’ve needed late-game magic to beat the Browns, Lions, and Broncos, who are a combined 8-19. All three games were on the road, and they were wins, but Super Bowl teams don’t struggle against last-place teams or throw a stink-bomb like their 9-0 home loss to Green Bay.
The Browns, meanwhile, enter each season knowing they have to survive home-and-homes against two of the league’s toughest teams, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. They got through the most brutal five-game stretch of their schedule – Atlanta, at Pittsburgh, at New Orleans, New England, the Jets – within a hair’s breadth of an even split. The next five are at Jacksonville, Carolina, at Miami, at Buffalo, and at Cincinnati; even with four road games, they may find themselves in the unaccustomed role of favorites for a few of them.
It’s not impossible that they’ll be 7-7 when the Ravens and Steelers come to Cleveland for the last two games of the season. Their recent form has given Browns fans something they haven’t had much of since the team came back in 1999: hope.