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With the NFL season a little more than half over, only one team has clearly established its claim to a division title. The Los Angeles Rams, rather surprisingly, have spread-eagled what had seemed to be a very strong Coastal Division and, after beating San Francisco 41-30 last Sunday, lead the Baltimore Colts by an almost insurmountable three games, with six left to play.
There are three clear-cut favorites in the other divisions, but none is out of reach of contenders. On their performances to date, however, the Dallas Cowboys in the Capitol, the Cleveland Browns in the Century and the Minnesota Vikings in the Central should go on to win division championships. All four division leaders are sound, deep and talented, but the Cowboys probably are most richly endowed with exceptional players.
The Browns, who thrashed Dallas in Cleveland two weeks ago, have improved steadily since the season began—except for last week's understandable letdown, a 51-3 whomping by the Vikings—and approach the excellence Coach Blanton Collier anticipated during preseason training. Cleveland was hampered early by major injuries to Defensive Tackle Jim Kanicki, Cornerback Ben Davis and Strong Safety Ernie Kellermann. Kanicki broke his leg in the final exhibition game, Kellermann suffered a broken thumb, which kept him out of three games, and Davis underwent knee surgery and has been lost for the season. Kanicki should be back soon. Meanwhile Marvin Upshaw, a second-year defensive end, whose brother Gene plays for Oakland, has done reasonably well filling in for him. "He has been up and down," Collier says of Upshaw. "I'd say he's been pretty good. A new man at a new position is bound to make mistakes, but I believe he'll come along well."
Two rookies have filled in for the injured defensive backs, Walt Sumner for Davis and Freddie Summers for Kellermann. Sumner suffered the rookie blues in a 21-21 tie with St. Louis, but bounced back against Dallas. Summers now has been replaced by Kellermann, but Freddie showed fine speed and a liking for contact in the three full games he played and he gives the Browns useful depth in their secondary.
Despite inexperienced hands, the Cleveland defense had been redoubtable until last Sunday. Tom Landry, the Cowboy coach, characterized it pretty well the other day, when he said, "It's like a rubber band. It gives but seldom breaks."
Offensively, the Browns have a fine line, which is probably a bit better at protecting Quarterback Bill Nelsen than at opening holes for as good a set of running backs as there are in the league—Leroy Kelly, Reece Morrison and No. 1 draft choice Ron Johnson. The latter has improved his blocking, but a recent ankle injury has been a handicap to him while carrying the ball.
With the almost impenetrable protection usually afforded Nelsen (he was sacked only eight times in the first seven games), he has blossomed as a passer, and the early return of Tight End Milt Morin, who was operated on for a herniated spinal disk in June, has pumped even more life into the passing attack, which also features Paul Warfield and the reliable Gary Collins. Morin was awarded the game ball after Cleveland beat Dallas, but he promptly handed it over to Dr. Malcolm Brahms, the orthopedic specialist who performed his operation.
Undoubtedly, the Browns' finest game was the 42-10 win over Dallas. (Curiously, the Cowboys have only won one of the nine games they have played in Cleveland.) "I guess the players just got filled up reading and hearing about Dallas," Collier said last week. "They got to the point where they wanted to go out and prove something. You just can't keep hearing those things without some reaction. We played well and met good fortune halfway." Alas, the Browns apparently hadn't heard of Minnesota.
Tex Schramm, the president of the Cowboys, had another theory about the Brown game. "You hear a lot about our being flat," he said. "I don't think that's true. I think we came up with a normal effort and hit a team keyed for a super effort. For some reason our players don't respect Cleveland enough. Then we got behind and had to play catch-up and never could regain our poise."
Whatever the explanation, and despite the Viking drubbing, the Browns are easily the class of the Century Division. With the St. Louis Cardinals inconsistent and New York and Pittsburgh out of their depth, Cleveland's future in its own division is about as bright as it could be; only the outlook for the Rams shines—theoretically—more strongly.