It had been a long, long time since the Browns had had a season turn so dramatically -- in such a positive fashion -- from preseason predictions as the one in 2007.
Coming off a 4-12 finish in 2006, and a combined mark of only 19-45 over four years, and with the fact the Browns had an unsettled situation at quarterback, things certainly did not look rosy entering the season.
To make matters worse, the early part of the schedule shaped up as a killer -- one that could possibly put the club into a big early hole from which it might not ever be able to recover. In the six games leading into their bye, the Browns hosted all three of their AFC North foes -- the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals -- and made a trip to New England to face a Patriots team that was the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl.
Critics said the Browns would win no more than one of those games, setting the stage for another tough, disappointing year.
The negative talk got ratcheted up even more when, in the opener, the Browns fell behind the Steelers 17-0 in the first quarter en route to a 34-7 defeat.
It didn't get any easier. Next up were the Bengals, a team that had beaten them five straight times, including twice in 2006 by a combined score of 64-17. Just 9 1/2 months earlier, Cincinnati had come to Cleveland Browns Stadium and won 30-0.
The situation caused a week of severe soul-searching for the Browns. They re-evaluated everything they did -- everything they thought, everything they believed in -- to try to find a way to get themselves going.
As part of that process, they made headlines nationally when, on Tuesday of that week, a mere 48 hours after the loss to Pittsburgh, they traded their starting quarterback in that game, Charlie Frye, to the Seattle Seahawks and named Derek Anderson his replacement.
The two had battled for the job in an open competition in training camp, and Frye ultimately won, mostly because of his edge in game experience after starting 13 games in 2006 and five in '05. Anderson's only three starts came at the end of 2006 when Frye was hurt.
Frye struggled in the opener, completing just 4-of-10 passes for 34 yards while being intercepted once and getting sacked five times. His quarterback rating was 10.0.
He was lifted in the middle of the second quarter for Anderson, who hit 13-of-28 for 184 yards, a touchdown and a pick the rest of the way while being sacked once. The Browns coaches saw enough potential in him to make the switch, thus elevating first-round draft pick Brady Quinn to No. 2.
So with a new quarterback and seeking a fresh start, the Browns met the Bengals.
It was the turning point of the season, and maybe the turning point of the franchise's development under general manager Phil Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel. For after that game, nothing was ever the same for the rest of the year.
The Browns exceeded their previous week's point production by more than seven times -- and tied for the fifth-most points in franchise history -- when they outlasted the Bengals 51-45 in a high school basketball-like score.
You had to see it to believe it. The team that had had trouble scoring throughout the expansion era couldn't be stopped, gaining a 27-21 halftime lead and then keeping pace with the star-driven Bengals in the second half.
So in one half, the Browns had scored as many points as they did in all but one game in 2006 -- and more than they did in any contest that did not go overtime.
Anderson was outstanding, completing 20-of-33 passes for 328 yards, five TDs and one interception for a 121.0 rating. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards caught eight of those passes for 146 yards and two scores, while tight end Kellen Winslow added six receptions for 100 yards and a score and wideout Joe Jurevicius had two TDs among his four grabs.
Running back Jamal Lewis, who used to bedevil the Browns when he was with the Baltimore Ravens, rushed for 216 yards -- the sixth-most in club history -- and had a 66-yarder for a score.
Maybe the Browns were still reveling in that performance a week later, as they were flat for much of the day in losing 26-24 to an Oakland Raiders club that would finish just 4-12. They had a chance to win, but Phil Dawson's 40-yard field goal as time expired was blocked almost before it came off his foot when the protection broke down.
They followed the disappointment at Oakland with a convincing 27-13 win over the Ravens, racing to 14-0 lead after one quarter and 24-6 at halftime. The big play was Anderson's 78-yard TD pass to Edwards in the first quarter.
A week later, Lewis got hurt on the first play of the game and Anderson was intercepted three times as the Browns lost 34-17 at New England after trailing 20-0 at halftime.
The hot-and-cold aspect of the season continued when the Browns exploded offensively in a 41-31 win over the Dolphins. They saw a 24-3 second-quarter lead reduced to 27-24 after three quarters, but then Anderson threw two TD passes to Edwards to secure the win as the club headed into its bye.
The Browns were still upset over having lost to the Raiders, but at 3-3, their record was light years better than many thought it would be at that point.
After returning to action, the Browns continued their good play by defeating the St. Louis Rams 27-20 and then the Seattle Seahawks 33-30 in overtime to move to 5-3 at the halfway mark of the season.
The Browns fell behind St. Louis 14-0 just 10 minutes into the game but gained a 24-17 lead midway through the third quarter. They clinched the win on cornerback Leigh Bodden's interception at the Cleveland 28 with 38 seconds left.
The Browns also nearly buried themselves early against the Seahawks, falling behind 21-6 late in the second quarter. They gained a 30-27 lead on Lewis' fourth TD run of the day, a one-yarder with 2:17 left in regulation, but Seattle tied it on a 22-yard field goal as time expired.
Dawson then booted a 25-yarder in OT to win it.
The following week's game, an important one at Pittsburgh as the 5-3 Browns battled the 6-2 Steelers for first place, was just like the ones against Seattle and St. Louis. Only this time, the roles were reversed, as the Browns started fast and then faded.
After bolting to a 21-6 advantage late in the second quarter, they lost 31-28. Pittsburgh outscored the Browns 22-7 in the second half, including 15-7 in the fourth quarter, and clinched the win when Dawson's game-tying, 52-yard field goal with six seconds remaining fell just short.
Cleveland's last score, giving it a 28-24 lead with 11:14 left, was provided by Joshua Cribbs' 100-yard kickoff return for a TD. It was the most exciting play of the day for either team.
It was a pivotal game in the division race, for the Browns, with two defeats to the Steelers, would lose the first tie-breaker with them if the clubs finished the season with the same record. So, with six contests to play, 7-2 Pittsburgh had a two-game lead in the standings over 5-4 Cleveland, but in essence, with the tie-breaker, that advantage was actually three games, meaning the Browns' best chance to get into the playoffs for the first time since 2002 might be as a wild card.
Whatever way they wanted to try to enter the postseason, the Browns, just barely above .500, had to start winning a lot of games right away to make it happen. And that they did, beating the Ravens 33-30 in OT -- their second OT win by that score in three weeks -- and the Houston Texans 27-17 in the next two contests to push their mark to 7-4.
The victory over Baltimore was one of the most bizarre in Browns history. Following free safety Brodney Pool's 100-yard interception return for a TD late in the fourth quarter, the Browns, with a 27-14 lead, seemed to be on the verge of putting the game away. But just as was the case all season with the Browns, a lead never seemed safe when they were ahead, or behind.
The Ravens then scored 16 unanswered points to go ahead 30-27 on former Brown Matt Stover's 47-yard field goal with just 26 seconds left in regulation.
But Cribbs' 39-yard kickoff return to the Cleveland 43 gave the Browns a chance, and then Anderson found Jurevicius for six yards and Edwards for 18 to take the ball to the Baltimore 33, where they called timeout with three seconds remaining and got ready for Dawson to try a 51-yarder to tie the game.
The kick was originally ruled no good, and the Ravens and their fans celebrated the apparent win. But after consulting with each other for several minutes and then talking to the NFL office for a clarification of the rules, the officials changed the ruling on the kick to good to put the score at 30-30 and force OT.
The ball had gone over the crossbar and through the uprights, and then hit the support post of the uprights, forcing it back over the crossbar and onto the playing field -- a ricochet effect, if you will. But because the kick was clearly through the uprights before hitting the support post, thus fulfilling all the requirements for a successful field goal, the fact it came back out was determined to be inconsequential.
No one had ever seen anything like it. As with much of what the Browns did in 2007, it made national news, appearing on highlight shows for days.
All that excitement made the win over the Texans mundane in comparison. But it was not. In fact, no victory could be taken for granted, since wins had been so hard to come by for the Browns in previous years.
With Lewis running for 134 yards and a TD and Anderson passing for two scores, the Browns recovered from a 7-0 deficit and built a 27-10 fourth-quarter lead.
But for the second time that season, the Browns followed up a good performance at home by going out West and struggling. The Arizona Cardinals, roaring to a 14-0 lead in the first 10 minutes of the game, held off the Browns 27-21. Cleveland's fate was sealed when Winslow's catch of a 37-yard pass from Anderson near the back of the end zone as time expired was ruled out of bounds.
The Browns rebounded the next two weeks to defeat the New York Jets 24-18 and the Buffalo Bills 8-0 to go to 9-5. They nearly blew a 17-6 fourth-quarter lead to the Jets but were able to all but seal the win when Lewis broke a number of tackles on a Jim Brown-like 31-yard TD run with 1:22 remaining.
Lewis rushed for 118 yards overall and also caught one of the two TD passes thrown by Anderson.
The weather -- and Dawson's kicking -- were the highlights against visiting Buffalo. The game was played in near-blizzard conditions -- blowing snow and a 32-miles-per-hour wind that reduced the wind chill to 16 degrees and the visibility to next-to-nothing.
Despite the near-impossible conditions, Dawson hit two first-half field goals, including a booming 49-yarder that went through the uprights and then, incredibly, hit the support post again. The Browns also scored a safety before halftime, and then held off the Bills to record their first shutout since midway through the 2001 season.
Though the Browns still trailed the Steelers, they had a chance to clinch at least a wild-card playoff berth by winning at Cincinnati in the next-to-last game of the season. But the Bengals intercepted a pair of Anderson passes in a 40-second span near the end of the second quarter and turned them into TDs to build a 19-0 halftime lead, and they rode that to a 19-14 win. The Browns got their two TDs on Anderson-to-Edwards passes, but it wasn't enough.
The 9-6 Browns had lost out on a great opportunity, and now they no longer controlled their own destiny in the playoff chase. No matter what they did in their regular-season finale against the San Francisco 49ers at Cleveland Browns Stadium -- they could even lose, for that matter -- their chances for a wild-card spot would be determined solely by what Tennessee, also 9-6, did at Indianapolis later that evening in the last game of the overall NFL schedule.
If the Titans won, then they would get the berth ahead of the Browns on tie-breakers. But if they lost, then Cleveland was in.
It seemed fitting that in a season that had been likened so many times to the 1980 Kardiac Kids campaign, the Browns' playoff hopes would go right down to the wire.
Wanting to finish the regular season on a positive note regardless of what would happen at the RCA Dome, the Browns built a 17-7 halftime lead and downed the 49ers 20-7. Cribbs had a 76-yard punt return for a TD and Lewis rushed for 128 yards to spur the victory.
The Browns left the locker room late that afternoon not sure if their season was over or not. They got their answer about 6 1/2 hours later when the Colts, resting most of the starters for all but the first part of the game after having already clinched the AFC South crown, fell 16-10 to Tennessee.
So even though the Browns finished 10-6, the same as the Titans and North champion Pittsburgh, they didn't get into the playoffs. It marked the first time in Browns history that they won 10 games and failed to make the postseason.
Still, there was much of which to be proud, including:
When it was all added up, the Browns had far exceeded everyone's expectations, becoming the surprise team in the NFL. They had changed their fortunes dramatically in those last 15 games -- not just for the season, but for the foreseeable future.
As such, whereas recent Browns offseasons had been filled with uncertainly, this one would be filled with excitement.
|9/9||L 7-34||Pittsburgh Steelers||73,089|
|9/16||W 51-45||Cincinnati Bengals||72,801|
|9/23||L 24-26||at Oakland Raiders||51,075|
|9/30||W 27-13||Baltimore Ravens||73,024|
|10/07||L 17-34||at New England Patriots||68,756|
|10/14||W 41-31||Miami Dolphins||73,198|
|10/28||W 27-20||at St. Louis Rams||62,777|
|11/4||W 33-30 (OT)||Seattle Seahawks||72,927|
|11/11||L 28-31||at Pittsburgh Steelers||64,781|
|11/18||W 33-30 (OT)||at Baltimore Ravens||71,055|
|11/25||W 27-17||Houston Texans||72,730|
|12/2||L 21-27||at Arizona Cardinals||64,791|
|12/9||W 24-18||at New York Jets||76,822|
|12/16||W 8-0||Buffalo Bills||73,196|
|12/23||L 14-19||at Cincinnati Bengals||66,023|
|12/30||W 20-7||San Francisco 49ers||73,041|
|Score By Periods|
|Total First Downs||315||335|
|3rd Down: Made/Att||86/204||79/215|
|3rd Down Pct.||42.2||36.7|
|4th Down: Made/Att||6/15||11/25|
|4th Down Pct.||40.0||44.0|
|Total Net Yards||5621||5723|
|Avg. Per Game||351.3||359.6|
|Avg. Per Play||5.6||5.4|
|Net Yards Rushing||1895||2072|
|Avg. Per Game||118.4||129.5|
|Net Yards Passing||3726||3681|
|Avg. Per Game||232.9||230.1|
|Net Punting Avg.||35.8||32.9|
It marks the first time Cleveland has selected a wide receiver in the first round since 2005 (Braylon Edwards).
The NFL Draft gets underway Thursday night at 8 p.m.