I'll tell you why I think the Cleveland Browns will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXX: the anger factor. The Steelers loom as the big obstacle in this division, and last year Cleveland lost three times to them. The final game, a 29-9 defeat in the playoffs, was especially tough on the Browns because of the way it happened. Their normally sturdy defense was mauled and humiliated by a crushing ground attack. Cleveland has had to live with that all through the off-season.
Now the Browns are steaming and ready to resume the argument. They have lost two starting defensive tackles, including five-time Pro Bowl veteran Michael Dean Perry, but they have been fortified by the acquisition of Tim Goad, who was a terrific nosetackle for seven years with New England, and by tackle Larry Webster, although Webster will miss the first six games on a drug suspension.
The Browns' other major difficulty in those three losses to Pittsburgh was their passing game: eight interceptions, lots of drops, routes gone awry. Help arrived during the off-season. First, from Atlanta came Andre Rison, one of the game's premier wide receivers. He is ably supported by Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander, who had his moments as a rookie last year. Now the wideout corps, which was only average, is top-grade.
Second, from Georgia came quarterback Eric Zeier, a third-round draft choice who wowed 'em in the exhibition season while last year's starter, Vinny Testaverde, battled a staph infection. Now it gets interesting. Testaverde shone at times last season, and he is a courageous player, but the Cleveland fans simply can't wait to boo him. Why? Three reasons: He throws interceptions, he lost to Pittsburgh three times last season, and he replaced local hero Bernie Kosar.
Zeier is still way behind Testaverde, but he has that certain something that the great ones have. He had it in college, that glinty-eyed, hungry look. He stepped up the pace when his Bulldogs were behind, got them in and out of the huddle quickly and always looked for the edge. Think back to Brian Sipe during Cleveland's Kardiac Kids days and you've got a picture of Zeier. If Testaverde suffers an injury—well, who knows?
If you're looking for a real sleeper, try a 5'8", 201-pound fireball halfback named Ernest Hunter, a free agent who led the little schools of the NAIA in rushing last year and had a dazzling exhibition season. Hunter will provide more oomph for an offense that ranked 16th in the league in 1994.
Why do we dwell so much on the necessity of Cleveland getting by the Pittsburgh Steelers to reach Supe XXX? How about the Dolphins, the Chargers and the Raiders? Well, you get the home field in the playoffs by having the best record, and you get the best record by playing Houston, Cincinnati and Jacksonville twice apiece, which the Steelers and the Browns do. Get the picture?
Logic dictates that the Steelers should be the AFC favorites to reach the Super Bowl. One long pass by the Chargers and one drive that fell three yards short of the San Diego end zone were all that kept them out of the game last season. Moreover, while free agency has nipped at Pittsburgh's flanks, it hasn't bitten too deeply, and the team is basically the same one that was a whisper away in '94.
The running tandem of Barry Foster and Bam Morris is now Morris and Erric Pegram, with Morris having striven to make a big statement in the preseason with leaping bursts into the line. Note to young running backs: Keep your feet; that leaping stuff puts you on injured reserve. Pegram's a heart-and-desire guy, too, and I don't think that last season's No. 1 rushing attack will suffer much from the departure of Foster.
The receivers are a year older and more experienced, and the offensive line loses Pro Bowl guard Duval Love but picks up another sturdy old-timer, Tom Newberry. Pro Bowl tight end Eric Green has taken himself and his 280 pounds to Miami to be replaced by top draft choice Mark Bruener. The loss of Green will mean less effective blocking, for sure.