The Browns, after a shaky start under their experienced quarterback, Frank Ryan, ripped impressively through the latter part of their schedule with young Bili Nelsen doing the signal-calling and Leroy Kelly proving that he has no less running power—and even more speed—than Jim Brown.
The Cowboys began fast, slacked off a bit in midseason, then turned it on to clinch the championship of the somewhat punchless Capitol Division with two games left to play.
Last year, in the conference championship game in Dallas between the same teams, the Cowboys cantered to a 52-14 victory. Much of the Cowboy explosion was provided by Bob Hayes, who set up two touchdowns on punt returns of 64 and 68 yards and caught an 86-yard touchdown pass from Don Meredith. The Dallas defense did the rest.
Hayes is back and the defense is intact and the Cowboys should win again, although it will not be nearly so easy. Last year the Cowboys ranked sixth in the league in total defense and first against the rush; the Browns, on the other hand, leaked for 4,666 yards, most of that total being given up to opponents' aerial attacks. So the Brown weakness—pass defense—was pitted against the Cowboy strength, and the Cowboy strength—defense against the run—nullified the strongpoint of the Cleveland offense. This year, during the disorganized early weeks, the Browns lost to Dallas again but the team the Cowboys will face Sunday bears small resemblance to last year's losers or to the stumbling club they defeated 28-7 in their second game this season.
Aside from the obvious lift given the offense by the performance of Nelsen at quarterback, the change in Cleveland fortunes stems from a dramatically improved defense. Blanton Collier, the mild man who coaches the Browns with insight and intelligence, made sweeping revisions and now the Brown defense ranks among the best in the league. Significantly, the biggest improvement has come against passing. The Browns lead the league in interceptions (with 32) and have allowed fewer than half the passes thrown against them to be completed. In 1967 they intercepted only 22 passes, and opponents completed a thumping 55.1% of their attempts (in the playoff Meredith completed 10 of his 12 passes against them for 212 yards and two touchdowns).
The Browns' offense is, surprisingly, better balanced than that of the Cowboys. Paul Warfield has had an exceptional year as a wide receiver, and Gary Collins, out most of the time with an injury, will be back for this game. Collins and Warfield are backed up by ageless Tommy McDonald, who is at his best in big games, and the Brown air attack is considerably sharpened by Milt Morin, a giant of a tight end with enough speed to be used on deep patterns.
With Kelly and Ernie Green, who is back from an injury that sidelined him for a good deal of the campaign, the Browns mount the best running attack around. Kelly, not as big as Jim Brown, has duplicated Brown's ground-gaining feats since taking over from the ex-All Pro. He brings a small plus to the Cleveland attack: he blocks, which makes Green a better ballcarrier and provides Nelsen with more protection.
The Cleveland offensive line gives Nelsen ample time to throw, and it is helped-by Kelly and Green picking up blitzes (opposing defenses have deposited the Cleveland quarterback on the seat of his pants only 28 times this year). But its sternest test to date will be furnished by the rush of the Cowboy line and linebackers. The Dallas defenders, led by Bob Lilly and Jethro Pugh, have sacked opposition quarterbacks 51 times during 1968, the high for the league.
The Dallas ground attack has nothing to match the explosive threat of Kelly, but the Cowboys have gained about as much yardage rushing as Cleveland. Don Perkins, their rather small fullback, is a determined, stubborn runner with quickness but something less than Kelly's top speed. He, too, is an exemplary blocker and he helps to make holes for Craig Baynham, who replaced the injured Dan Reeves at the other running-back spot. Baynham is a steady, strong runner but he is not the kind of game-breaker Reeves was. The loss of Reeves deprived the Cowboys of their strongest weapon inside an opponent's 20-yard line.
The Dallas passing game is devastating, although it, too, has suffered a trifle this year from the absence of Reeves, a former college quarterback who was probably the best halfback in the league at throwing the option pass. Meredith has come up with his usual assortment of contusions this season, but even so he has had the best year of his career. In Hayes and Lance Rentzel he has the fastest pair of wide receivers in football. The Cowboys probably will not demolish the Cleveland pass defense but they will certainly puncture it.