CLEVELAND -- There is life in Cleveland after all. The Browns have defeated two quality opponents in a row and their fans are celebrating as if LeBron James changed his decision.
Well ... maybe not that much. But Cleveland's football feelings are positive for the first time in a long time after consecutive wins over the New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots.
The Browns dominated Sunday's 34-14 shellacking of the Patriots, as Peyton Hillis rambled and Colt McCoy scampered and Tom Brady looked perplexed. The Browns used one trick play out of the wildcat, yes, but this was a good old-fashioned impressive win over a team that began the game with the league's best record. The Browns set season highs for points (34), first downs (22), total yards (404), rushing yards (230) and time of possession (38:08).
New England played a very un-Patriots-like game, dropping passes, giving up yards via penalties and making sloppy mistakes -- like a fumble to the Browns at the 2-yard-line late in the first half as New England appeared ready to cut a 17-7 deficit to three.
But the Browns played well, and they suddenly have transformed themselves, turning a 1-5 start into positive momentum by beating Drew Brees and Tom Brady in consecutive games. Eric Mangini's plan is working as he absolutely likes it to work. Safety Abe Elam described it: "We were able to run the ball, play physical and not give up big plays."
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The Browns dominated the line of scrimmage, as the time of possession indicates. Hillis -- a throw-in when the Browns sent Brady Quinn to Denver -- continued his modern-day Larry Csonka impersonation and rumbled for a career-high 184 yards and two touchdowns. Colt McCoy played like a veteran, and the Browns did the improbable by confusing Brady almost as much as they confused Brees two weeks earlier. The Browns rolled up the most yards the Patriots had given up all season. And they held the NFL's No. 1 ranked scoring offense to 14 points.
"We just proved ourselves worthy," said Josh Cribbs.
After years of being unworthy.
And the Browns provided some truths for the rest of the season:
• They will run a trick play at any time against anyone. Two trick plays on special teams helped beat New Orleans. Against New England, WR Chansi Stuckey scored on a sneaky handoff from Cribbs in the wildcat formation, with the Browns at the 12-yard-line. While McCoy was gesturing to the sidelines and linemen were standing at the line, Cribbs sneaked under center and took a snap. He handed cleverly to Stuckey, then rambled right as if he had the ball. Stuckey had a clear path to the end zone around left tackle.
Where did the play come from? Kent State. Cribbs said Kent State coach Doug Martin brought it with him, and that he and Julian Edelman (a Patriots WR) both ran it for the Golden Flashes.
• It's time to forget the talk about Seneca Wallace or Jake Delhomme; McCoy has proven he deserves to finish the season.
McCoy has done nothing but play calm, poised, clever, smart football since he took over three games ago -- he's defeated New England and New Orleans and played very well against Pittsburgh. A rookie's first three starts could not have come against tougher competition, but McCoy was up to the task.
"He's playing great football," Cribbs said. "Last week, guys asked me about him and when the other guys get healthy, and I was saying it's not fair for other guys to lose their spots to injury. When a kid is playing remarkable football like that and we're on a roll, I'm sure they'll understand if they decide to keep him at quarterback."
Some of McCoy's best passes came on the run, when he felt the rush and slid outside. One was on the run to Brian Robiskie, another on the run to Cribbs. McCoy also was on the run for a 16-yard third quarter touchdown scamper, a play when he followed a crushing Cribbs block into the end zone.
The bigger point: What do the Browns gain by going back to Wallace or Delhomme? McCoy is making statements that he may be the team's future. Let him show it. The way he's played the last three games, he's done nothing to lose the starting job. (Not that Mangini won't drag out naming a starter as long as possible.)
• Hillis is becoming a cult hero in Cleveland, a city that loves punishing, physical running backs. Hillis is just that -- a downhill guy who looks as much like Csonka as anyone since Csonka. His 184 yards came on 29 carries, and he personally accounted for every yard on a fourth-quarter, 60-yard touchdown drive when the Patriots defense knew the Browns had to run. Hillis added 36 yards on three receptions, including one down the field when he beat Mayo. Total yards: 220 for a slowish running back.
Hillis is running behind a rejuvenated offensive line, which got excellent play from guard Eric Steinbach. But he is making it work. The Browns best hope he not get hurt because they traded his backups, but he makes the team's running game and its play-action game effective.
"Coach (Mangini) said he wanted a physical game and he wanted us to be the thumpers," said fullback Lawrence Vickers, "so we came out and got our running game going."
Vickers added that the win was great for Mangini, "standing on his own and doing his own thing right now and saying 'look at the things I've done.'"
Which was also true. Mangini beat his mentor, which always is a good feeling. And the Browns have now won two in a row and showed far more positive signs than they did when they opened the season 0-3 (against Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Baltimore). That start has the Browns at 3-5 at the midway point, meaning they have to win six of their final eight to even have a sniff of the playoffs (a notion that realistically is far-fetched at this point).
But fans will dream. The win might have been the best for a Browns team in years. But it was not worthy of a Gatorade shower for its coach, which Mangini received. Take nothing away from the effort or the win, but when a team celebrates going 3-5 with a Gatorade dousing, then said team has a ways to go -- even if the coach smiled and called it "refreshing."
That being said, Mangini summed up his team well when he said: "First you learn how to work, then you learn how to compete, then you learn how to win and then you learn how to win consistently. What my expectation is is that we are learning how to win, and then we continue to learn how to win consistently."
New England? It already knows those lessons, and it has the coach and quarterback to show that reality.
The Patriots had a bad day and lost. And when they got on their plane, they were still 6-2.
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