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Are the Browns really back?

| Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007

It'll be a "different" Browns team that invades Heinz Field this weekend for a showdown with first-place ramifications in the AFC North than the one that embarrassed itself in the regular-season opener in Cleveland.

Browns coach Romeo Crennel said so this week.

The question is, how different?

Are the Browns improving incrementally or by leaps and bounds?

Their on-the-field plight had apparently been exemplified by the four penalties the Browns incurred on one attempted punt during their 34-7 loss to the Steelers on Sept. 9.

The organization's lack of direction, meanwhile, was seemingly symbolized by the Browns' decision to trade starting quarterback Charlie Frye to Seattle a couple of days after mercifully yanking him from the Steelers debacle.

But in grasping once again at a straw and naming Derek Anderson the starter, the Browns have struck gold, to the extent that they're a blocked field goal (Sept. 23 in Oakland) away from having won six of seven since the opener (the other loss came at the hands of unbeatable New England).

As it is, the Browns have won five of their last seven.

That's one more game than Cleveland won a year ago and more than 20 NFL teams have won this season.

The Steelers' hammered Anderson and the Browns last December at Heinz Field, but the former sixth-round draft choice of Baltimore is coming back as the NFL's ninth-rated passer (91.7).

Anderson is ahead of Carson Palmer (91.0), Matt Hasselbeck (88.7), Donovan McNabb (86.4), Drew Brees (84.6) and Eli Manning (79.4), among others, in that department.

And Anderson is third league-wide in average gain per passing play (8.20 yards per).

He's also more than tripled his TD passes this season (17) over his 2006 total (five).

Wide receiver Braylon Edwards has more TD receptions (nine) than the team-leading six he posted a year ago.

Jamal Lewis has six rushing touchdowns after registering four in Sunday's win over Seattle (Reuben Droughns led the team with four in 2006).

And the Browns' 227 points are just 11 less than their 16-game total a year ago.

So they're better offensively; no question.

Where Cleveland remains challenged is on defense.

As hot as the Browns have been on offense, they're ranked dead last in total defense this week.

And that'll eventually be their undoing.

The Browns' defense is such that, despite an average output of 31.4 points per game over the last seven games, Cleveland remains one of two teams with a winning record that also has a minus figure in points scored-points allowed differential (minus 6; the Redskins, also 5-3, are minus 8).

That much hasn't changed, and isn't likely to any time soon.

Not measuring up
How the Browns have fared statistically at the midpoint:
Browns Category Browns' opponents
27:32 Time of possession 32:28
110.9 Rushing Yards per Game 135.1
254.5 Passing Yards per Game 276.6
365.4 Totals Yards per Game 411.8
227 Points 233
59/424 Penalties/Yards 45/345
56.9 Percent of Passes Completed 60.8
13 Times Sacked 7
10 Interceptions Thrown 7

THE WEEK AHEAD

STUBHUB IF YOU MUST: Cowboys at Giants - A rematch battle for NFC East supremacy. Romo vs. Eli. T.O. vs. Plex. In one of the NFL's better venues. Be there.

MUST-SEE TV: Rams at Saints - Turns out reports of the Saints' demise were greatly exaggerated. New Orleans' four straight wins and 976 total yards over the last two weeks have made the Saints compelling again.

MUST-TIVO TV: Jaguars at Titans - Another rematch featuring a future Steelers' opponent (Jacksonville visits Dec. 16) and a potential playoff adversary (would you believe Tennessee has won 12 of its last 15?).

BE SOMEWHERE ELSE: Bengals at Ravens - Cincinnati has quit and Baltimore may be about to. When you're trailing Cleveland in your division at midseason it's time to re-evaluate.


PROSPECT WATCH

Oniel Cousins, OT, UTEP: There are scouts out there who will tell you that Cousins (6-foot4, 305 pounds) isn't on most people's radar just yet but that he will be sooner rather than later.

Comparisons are being drawn to Tony Ugoh, who was a senior-season sensation last year and came from out of nowhere, relatively speaking, and shot all the way up to Indianapolis on the second round. Cousins is said to be more competitive than Ugoh, more passionate about the game and in possession of what scouts describe as "million-dollar feet." Cousins can pass block, run block, pull and do it all with an athleticism that suggests he wouldn't be a reach in the second round.

It's a great year for quarterbacks, wide receivers, linebackers and offensive tackles.

This guy's one of the reasons why.


HURRY-UP OFFENSE

The word on the street is the schedule-maker isn't a big Jaguars' fan. They'll play the third of three straight road games Sunday at Tennessee ... How did the Colts hang with the Pats last Sunday• Here are three reasons: Indianapolis registered the second-highest rushing total against New England this season (119 yards), the highest time of possession (30:16) and the highest third-down conversion rate (5 for 12, 41.6 percent). The Colts might have won had they been 50 percent or better on third downs, as they had been for five straight games ... Believe It Or Not Dept: Teams that have thrown for less than 100 yards in a game are 7-4. Tennessee is 3-0 amid such circumstances ... Detroit (6-2) has won three in a row for the first time since November 2000.


STATS OF THE WEEK

↑ We've referred to the NFC as the JV Conference this season and still maintain it's inferior to the AFC. But after winning five of six non-conference affairs over the weekend, the NFC has improved to 19-20 against the AFC. The Redskins (against the Jets), the Saints (against the Jaguars), the Vikings (against the Chargers), the Packers (against the Chiefs) and the Lions (against the Broncos) all successfully defended NFC honor. Only the Browns (in overtime against the Seahawks) prevented the AFC from being shutout.

↓ It appears the bye week ain't what it used to be. Six teams coming off of byes played last weekend (including Monday night) and four of them lost (the Chiefs, Cardinals, Seahawks and Ravens). Factor in post-bye triumphs for the Falcons and Cowboys, and teams in such situations are still just 13-10 this season. And one of those victories (the Broncos over the Steelers on Oct. 21) occurred when both teams were coming off an off weekend.

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