BEREA - The Browns have re-entered the national consciousness.
This time it has nothing to do with a motorcycle accident, a rookie`s contract holdout or a coach on the hot seat.
The Browns improved to 7-4 with a win over the Houston Texans on Sunday. They control their playoff destiny and are being trumpeted across the country as one of the league`s feel-good stories.
"This is the surprise team of the league," NFL Network`s Steve Mariucci said.
The Browns can be ignored no longer. They`ve won five of six, six of eight and five straight at home. If the season ended today, they`d be the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs.
Their resurgence hasn`t gone unnoticed, as Browns players are becoming regulars on ESPN`s "First Take" and Jim Rome`s radio show. Coach Romeo Crennel realizes that`s a byproduct of success, but does his best to rein in the hype.
"The only thing I try to do is keep them grounded, not let them get too big of a head," he said Monday. "I just remind them that last year nobody wanted to talk to you. This year, you`ve become popular all of a sudden. You just didn`t become better looking overnight."
To those outside team headquarters, the Browns turned into a real NFL team overnight. They went 4-12 last year and were expected to fare similarly this year. When they got off to a horrible start - a 34-7 loss to Pittsburgh, followed by an unprecedented trade of starting quarterback Charlie Frye - many labeled the organization dysfunctional, presumed Crennel`s firing and wondered about the future of general manager Phil Savage.
A lot can change in 11 weeks.
Derek Anderson, who replaced Frye, has gone 7-3 overall and 5-0 at home as a starter. He`s tied for fourth in the NFL with 22 touchdown passes and is 11th with an 89.5 quarterback rating. He`s made rookie Brady Quinn an afterthought.
Receiver Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow are proving worthy of their high draft status, Nos. 3 and 6 overall. They`ve stopped being a distraction off the field while putting up Pro Bowl numbers on it. Edwards has 11 touchdowns, 55 catches and 894 yards; Winslow has 62 catches, 874 yards and five touchdowns.
Running back Jamal Lewis has found a second wind, rushing for 226 yards the last two weeks. Coordinator Rob Chudzinski renewed his commitment to the run as the weather turned, and that`s added balance to an already potent offense that ranks eighth in the league in yardage (351.2 per game) and third in scoring (28.6 points).
"We`re putting it all together," Lewis said Sunday.
The defense joined the party Sunday, limiting a good Houston offense to 17 points. It was the lowest output by a Browns opponent since Baltimore scored 13 in Week 4. The Browns also forced three turnovers.
"It feels good when it`s a total team win," Winslow said.
"We`re just looking more like a team each week," defensive lineman Shaun Smith said. "We`re just feeding off each other and trying to get a â€˜W.` There are no individuals, everybody`s giving 100 percent."
The success is testing Crennel`s philosophy of ignoring talk of the playoffs and focusing on one week at a time. Fans and media are buzzing about the possibilities, which could include a run at the Steelers (7-3 before Monday night) for the AFC North title.
"It`s easy to get into that trap," receiver Joe Jurevicius said playoff talk. "That`s what everybody wants to hear. We`ll worry about that if that time comes. It`s a big if.
"If we can lay one brick per week, then we`re going to have ourselves a nice house at the end of the year. We`re doing great things right now. We have to continue."
The Browns` remaining opponents are Arizona (5-6), the New York Jets (2-9), Buffalo (5-6), Cincinnati (4-7) and San Francisco (3-8). As unexpected as this season was, some would consider it a letdown if the Browns don`t finish the year with a trip to the postseason.
"Everything`ll play out," Lewis said. "If we get in, we get in. It`s a five-game season for us. We just have to take care of our business every week."
So far, so good.
"Everything is starting to come together for us," Edwards said.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.