The Cleveland Browns, now playing with the �lan and confidence that marked them during the first half of the season, and the New York Giants, playing with the poise that allows them to accept adversity without panic, could be headed for a playoff for the Eastern Conference Championship of the National Football League.
Last week the Browns, behind an assured, calculating Frank Ryan, soundly whipped the St. Louis Cardinals in St. Louis, 24-10. The Giants, choked in the first half by a Dallas Cowboy team that is beginning to play up to its potential, nevertheless pulled out a 34-27 victory in the last quarter.
This leaves New York and Cleveland tied at the top, with 9-3 records. A step behind is St. Louis, 8-4; a half game further back are the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3-3), following Sunday's tie with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Despite their loss, the Cardinals are not out of the running; both New York and Cleveland face difficult opponents in the final two games of the season. The Browns meet the Detroit Lions in Detroit next Sunday, and the Lions, after a long siege of injuries, have begun to come back, as they proved in tying Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day. The Giants, whipped 31-0 by Pittsburgh earlier in the year, must meet the Steelers again in Yankee Stadium in the final game of the season. The Washington Redskins are the common opponent of the two teams. The Cardinals, on the other hand, play lower-ranking Philadelphia and Dallas, both in St. Louis.
During the week before this game, Mathematician Frank Ryan, asked by a Cleveland sportswriter to figure out how many possibilities existed in standings and finishing percentages for the four teams then in contention in the East, went to his slide rule and came up with 7,624. The events of the weekend did not, apparently, reduce his estimate much.
The Cleveland victory last Sunday was a carefully wrought one, based on a daring strategy beautifully executed by Quarterback Ryan. In the first Cleveland- St. Louis game on November 17, Ryan sat on the bench and watched the Cardinals put a strenuous rush on his replacement, Jim Ninowski. Sensing the rhythm of the Cleveland signal caller, the Cardinals would sometimes send a safety in on a blitz, giving him a running start and giving Ninowski a fit.
"In that first game, we would come out and the offensive line would stand up with their hands on their knees until the quarterback called the set," Ryan explained after the Sunday success. "Then Jim would start the countdown, and their defense could time it easily. Today we came out of the huddle fast and the line was down on three points at once, and we went often on a quick count. It messed up their blitzing and gave me more time to pass."
It also caught the Cardinals blitzing once when Cleveland was deep in trouble with a third down and long yardage on its own three-yard line. Ryan called a draw play to Jim Brown, who sped by the blitzing Cardinal linebackers and rumbled 61 yards before he was knocked out of bounds on the St. Louis 36-yard line.
"You can't throw long from down there," Ryan said. "You have two choices. You can throw short and hope the receiver will turn it into a long gain. Or you can give the ball to the best runner in football. I gave it to Brown."
Brown, incidentally, broke his own record for yardage gained in a season on this run. For the afternoon he gained a total of 179 yards on 29 carries, bringing his total for the year up to 1,677 yards, 150 yards more than his old record of 1,527.