So I drive over to AC's apartment to watch the game, low expectations, yet optimistic still that the Browns could salvage something. I mean, come on, the Bengals just thrashed the 13-3 Ravens on Monday Night Football and have a recent history of running up the score.
The game started uneventful enough. Then as it progressed, something strange happened, and I'll never forget the words I said to AC as the game evolved...
"Holy shit, an NFL quality throw? The Browns?"
This was still early in the game and to say that DA's bar was set low would be a vast overstatement. Really, who knew what to expect? Sure he looked good in the Chiefs game, but not really THAT good.
How wrong we all were.
I'll never forget the sheer awe I sat in watching DA sling passes around like there wasn't a defense there. Well, it was the Bengals D so I might have been right. It was offensive perfection, just thinking about it makes me happy and gleeful despite the fact that I'm sitting in this bullshit office thingee with investment statements all around me.
Offensive perfection. There are no other words to describe that day. It was a beautiful performance, by both teams really, but that was to be expected from the Bengals. It was great seeing Chad Johnson, still cocky, acting like a douchebag. It almost seemed like he thought he was breaking the Browns' back whenever he or Housh scored. To be honest, I expected it myself. I expected the onslaught to end, I mean look at the previous week, I didn't expect 24 points to be scored until the 4th week of the season, let alone in one half.
But it just never stopped, and not only did it not stop, it got even more ridiculous. With Jamal Lewis looking like a 2,000 yard rusher again and absolutely torching DB's to the offensive line opening up holes that this bitch could get through it seemed surreal...
But the day belonged to DA. Kellen Winslow was an established NFL player at this point. Braylon Edwards was a promising young WR entering his 3rd year, a benchmark for young WR's to emerge. Joe J. was a savvy vet, you knew what you were getting with him. You knew the talent was there, just waiting...
Then the strong-armed Scapposian comes in and starts chucking the ball downfield...I didn't know what to expect. The ball he threw was gorgeous, the prototypical spiral, cutting through the air like a torpedo through water. It was the perfect storm that nobody could see coming, a Nor'easter slamming into the coast 20 minutes after it was clear as glass.
In the preseason, it was Brady Quinn this, Brady Quinn that. Amongst the media slobbing, Browns fans missed the tell-tale signs, the quips that of the three, DA was the one who Chud favored for this offense. We had no idea. All of the sudden, on September 16, this tall, lanky goofball starts chucking these darts downfield. I was fucking shocked. How the hell could he honestly think these were going to be complete? What the fuck is this? The Charlie Frye era totally destroyed any thought of a downfield passing game, I was used to checkdowns. But when Braylon and Joe started hauling these things in, it was like Christmas.
And it never stopped. All of the sudden, Braylon and Kellen are getting 30 yard touchdowns like it's Madden on Rookie, everything was complete. The offense had more than swagger, it had a definite chip. They were acting like they couldn't be stopped. Just when you thought Cincy would catch up, start playing the D they played on MNF 6 days prior, Jamal would burst one for a huge gain. It was sheer madness.
I'm not going to lie, I didn't believe this was really happening. I didn't believe that the Browns, my Browns, were actually outgunning one of the top offenses in the NFL. I didn't believe that Jamal Lewis actually ran for 200 yards. I didn't believe that Derek fucking Anderson actually threw for 5 TD's. It just felt imagined.
Since September 16, the Browns have established themselves as one of the more balanced and efficient offenses in the NFL. From pass-heavy to run-heavy, they can do it all. The offensive line has emerged as a dominant force, the recievers and tight ends, almost uguardable, the running backs, effectively versatile. Lost in the whole craziness was the continued development of the great return game, Josh Cribbs delivering numerous ridiculous returns. The Browns are able to score on anyone in a variety of ways.
Since then, we have been beaten in games we, in hindsight, should have won (Raiders, Steelers, Cardinals). We have played the Patriots in a game that was much closer than most people realized. We have had overtime thrillers, thorough beatdowns, and had to close out a few scary games.
We have realized that Joe Thomas was the right pick. We have realized that Braylon Edwards was the only member of his top-10 draft pick peers to actually deserve his selection. We have realized that Jamal Lewis isn't done. We realized our defense misses Brian Russell more than you'd think we'd miss a slow, white defensive back. Yet, out of all of this, the Browns have emerged a strong, fundamentally sound team that should scare the shit out of people from here on out.
September 16, 2007 was the day the Browns found their identity. The parts were all there, but DA was the key that started the engine. Since that day, the reversal of AFC North fortunes were flipped. No longer were the Browns the guaranteed win they were in the past, now the Bengals and the Ravens were the whipping boys. The Steelers are now genuinely concerned. Winning is not only desired, it is expected, and it all started after the 51-45 shootout.
With the rematch looming this weekend, the Bengals have little to play for outside of assuming the role of a spoiler, while the Browns are playing for their postseason. Win and we're in. Lose, and it's going to get interesting.
Will Cincy show up? Will the rift emerging between the talented recieving corps and the marquee QB break this team apart? Will the Bengals even bother to try knowing that they have nothing to play for? Or will they avenge their humiliation, the ruining of their season to a group of guys the rest of the league laughed at?
The matchup is still the same...poor defenses trying to stop high-octane offenses. The location has changed, as has the season, but if you expect the same style of game, you're out of touch with the game.
It's not the fact that the Bengals are 5-9, it's that it seems more and more as if their top players genuinely hate each other. It's that the Cincy o-line is atroucious at best and open like Jamie Lynn Spears' legs at their worst. It's that, despite the improved play of the defense, they're still allowing a 66% completion percentage by opposing quarterbacks. It's that they're still the Bengals, the team that has finished above .500 exactly once since electricity was discovered. It's that the Benglas are the laughingstocks they always have been.
I'm not predicting an outcome for Sunday's game, I'm still not 100% sold on the Browns' defense. However, it is clear that if you look at the two teams, one is clearly on the same page and the other is on the brink of catastrophe. This game will make or break each other's seasons, continuing the ripple caused by September 16. If the Browns win, we'll look to this day as the day it all started. If the Bengals lose, serious evaluation of this frachise's long-term course must be undertaken.
It'd be foolhardy to look at this game as an easy win for the Browns. The Bengals will be fired up, avenging the destruction of their season will be on the top of their minds. The game is in Cincy, never an easy place for the Browns in the recent past. But the weather is cold, and I can think of no one better than Jamal Lewis to properly euligize the Bengals' season with a hammer-like performance, nailing the coffin shut. One long Browns drive and the game could be over quickly, but if September 16 was any indication, smart money's on the over.