- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Deep bitterness ate at the Cleveland Browns as their charter lifted off for the return trip from Chicago on Nov. 4. It's hard to imagine anything in the NFL more devastating than blowing a two-touchdown lead in the final minute of regulation play and then losing on a tipped interception returned for a touchdown in overtime, which the Browns had done against the Bears. On the plane the players stared ahead in disbelief until free safety Percy Ellsworth realized that this was no time to be depressed. Not in this league. Not in this season. " Pittsburgh lost today, right?" Ellsworth asked cornerback Corey Fuller.
"Right," said Fuller.
"You know what that means?" Ellsworth said. "It means we're playing the Steelers, in our house, for first place in the division next Sunday. We've got the Bus coming to town with first place on the line!"
Pigs fly in the NFL these days. The lesson to be learned from the first half of the 2001 season is that you're never out of the playoff race, even when it looks as if you have no business being in it. The three-year-old Browns—a combined 5-27 in their first two years back in the league as an expansion franchise—did play for a piece of the AFC Central lead on Sunday. Their neighbors in recent misery, the Cincinnati Bengals, were also in the thick of the division race as they headed south to face the Jacksonville Jaguars. Wins by the Browns and the Bengals would have left Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and the reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens knotted at 5-3 by sundown on Sunday. It didn't happen. Pittsburgh, with Jerome (the Bus) Bettis churning for 163 yards, and Jacksonville prevailed, leaving the 6-2 Steelers alone at the top. However, that didn't prevent the formerly downtrodden Browns and Bengals, not to mention the Bears and the New England Patriots and others of their ilk, from shouting the NFL's battle cry of 2001: Wait till Next Week!
"Realistically, a player can go to training camp today knowing that if his team gets things going in the right way, it can make a run at the title," says Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "Coaches have always given their players that 'on any given Sunday' b.s., but you can't tell me that the Steelers of the 1970s or the 49ers of the '80s believed that. Now the talent is spread so evenly."
Here's how unpredictable this season has been. In Week 6 underdogs won 11 of 13 games. The Washington Redskins lost their first three games by a combined 96 points, dropped their next two by a total of 32 and won their next three by a combined 30 points. The Kansas City Chiefs, who had the NFL's second-best home record in the '90s (63-17), are 0-4 at Arrowhead Stadium in 2001. The teams that finished last in the three AFC divisions last year ( New England, Cleveland and the San Diego Chargers) are 14-12, though it must be noted they've benefited from the softer schedule that's the reward for a last-place finish, as have the 6-2 Bears.
More stunning developments. The Buffalo Bills unceremoniously released Doug Flutie after last season; he signed with the Chargers and started the season looking like an MVP candidate. The Steelers' Kordell Stewart is maturing into a reliable and efficient passer. Somebody named Tom Brady (page 52) is playing in place of the highest-paid quarterback in the league, injured Drew Bledsoe, and has won five of his seven starts to keep New England on the heels of the AFC East leaders. The Ravens, who 10 months ago had the best defense in the history of mankind (remember?), surrendered 24 points to the offensively challenged Browns on Oct. 21 and lost by 10.
Cleveland's new coach, Butch Davis, walked into his first team meeting last March and told the Browns that he expected to win right away, that nothing less than winning would be acceptable. Last week, though, as he sat in his office, he knew he had more holes to fill than he'd realized back then. The Browns' inability to put away Chicago could be blamed on a putrid running game—Cleveland averages a league-low 3.1 yards a carry—and wide-outs who haven't consistently separated from cornerbacks. "This season is about winning," Davis said, "but because I walked in without knowing a lot of these players, it's also about revealing the holes that need to be fixed." Two or three drive-blocking offensive linemen and a game-breaking wideout are the most glaring needs.