The Browns are either halfway to their first playoff berth since 2002, or halfway to a pleasantly surprising season that falls short of the postseason.
With eight regular-season games left, here`s what we know for sure: The Browns are 5-3 overall, 4-1 at home, 2-1 in the AFC North and in the middle of the playoff chase. And coach Romeo Crennel, for the first time, is getting love from Browns fans and national media.
"The first half of the season has been better than it has been around here in a long time," Crennel said Monday. "You have to say that the team has improved. But there is still a lot of room for improvement and that`s what we`re trying to do."
The most room for improvement is on defense, where the Browns continue to rank last of the NFL`s 32 teams. The rushing defense has been better the last few games, especially in short yardage, but it will be severely tested by Pittsburgh and Willie Parker, who is second in the league with 768 yards.
The pass defense is last in the league in yards allowed (276.6 per game) and has given up 20 touchdowns. A lack of pass rush is putting extra pressure on the defensive backs, who are playing soft coverage to prevent the deep passes that were a problem early in the season.
In the current three-game winning streak, the offense has been able to save the defense. But that doesn`t mean it`s perfect.
The running game ranks 17th. That`s not bad, but Jamal Lewis` 216-yard day vs. Cincinnati skews the stats. The Browns got four short rushing touchdowns from Lewis on Sunday and could use more production in the other 95 yards of the field as the weather turns.
Its flaws are part of what makes this team likable. Its strengths â€“ passing offense, special teams, locker room chemistry â€“ are what make it a contender.
That presents a new challenge for Crennel, who spent his first two years fighting to keep the team afloat in a storm of losing, injuries and negativity. Now he`s busy managing expectations raised by five wins in seven games and a second-place standing in the division.
"Ultimately, what you want to do is you want to have a winning record," Crennel said. "You want to be able to make it to the playoffs and then try and go as far as you can in the playoffs. That`s what we`ve wanted every year.
"We have put ourselves in a position at this point in the season where there is a lot of optimism. But you still have eight games to go. A lot of things can happen and all we can do is just go out there and play our best."
A matchup with the Steelers (6-2) opens the second half Sunday just like one opened the season. While the Browns spoke confidently after the win over Seattle about the strides they`ve made since the 34-7 loss in Week 1, the images on their television screen Monday night delivered a healthy dose of reality.
The Steelers dominated the Ravens 38-7 and looked like the third-best team in the AFC, just a notch below the Patriots and Colts. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made big plays out of the pocket, the receivers exposed the Ravens beat-up secondary and linebacker James Harrison, an Akron native, was everywhere on defense and special teams to frustrate the Ravens.
So the Browns only need one week into the second half to see just how far they`ve come. An upset win â€“ the Steelers are early 9Â½-point favorites â€“ or a "good" loss would embolden the team for a playoff run. A lopsided loss wouldn`t crush the team â€“ they bounced back after Week 1 â€“ but it would dent their confidence and drop them into the wild-card chase with Tennessee, Jacksonville, Baltimore and Buffalo.
Either way, the Browns are halfway to their most memorable season in years. The ride should be fun.
Bentley out for season
BEREA - Offensive lineman LeCharles Bentley won`t play this year, missing his second straight season since joining the Browns.
The Cleveland native, who played at Ohio State, will remain on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, the club announced Tuesday. He is ineligible to practice with the team or play in a game for the rest of the season.
"As we`ve said all along, we want to give LeCharles the best opportunity for a successful return," senior vice president and general manager Phil Savage said in a statement. "It is our belief that allowing him to continue his rehabilitation in preparation for 2008 training camp is the best way to do that."
Bentley began the year on PUP, and Tuesday was the cutoff to return to practice or remain on PUP for the rest of the year.
"LeCharles has made significant progress since July and we remain hopeful that he will be able to return to the field as a Cleveland Brown," Savage said.
Bentley signed a six-year, $36 million contract in March 2006, then tore his left patellar tendon July 27, 2006, on the first contact play of training camp. Following surgery to repair the tendon, a staph infection attacked the knee and he needed three more surgeries.
He reported to training camp this year, but was only cleared by the team for individual work. He attended team meetings and worked out on his own, but his knee never got healthy enough for him to rejoin the team.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or email@example.com