July 31, 2014

Elyria
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Scott Petrak: It’s OK to believe in these Browns

 The Browns are three wins from 11-5 and a guaranteed spot in the playoffs.
Two wins and a little luck would also do the trick.
Even a perfect weekend — a win over Buffalo on Sunday, a Tennessee loss and a Denver loss or tie — would send the Browns on their most unlikely postseason trip since the Kardiac Kids captured the city’s heart in 1980.
Cleveland will always be a Browns town first, and the rise of this year’s edition has rekindled some feelings that have been buried beneath an avalanche of losses, wasted draft picks and organizational chaos. But the success has caught some people by such surprise that they seem scared to fully embrace the team.
I have a message for those afraid of rejection, and it fits with the Christmas season: It’s OK to believe.
Sure, a loss like the one two weeks ago in Arizona leaves fans feeling vulnerable. It reminds everyone that the Browns are a flawed team and there’s a possibility that Derek Anderson’s emergence, Braylon Edwards’ brilliance and Kellen Winslow’s toughness could all go for naught if December turns into a disaster.
But the win Sunday over the Jets and the Titans’ loss to San Diego leave the Browns perfectly poised to finish this surprise season in style.
The Browns weren’t at their best versus the lowly Jets, but they were good enough to win. They controlled the game for 55 minutes before a defensive lapse and a flurry of onside kicks had everyone at home on their couches biting their nails and trying not to think about curses.
The NFL is an unpredictable league by design. With the exception of the Patriots, no team is perfect and a majority of the games are decided by a handful of plays. So the important thing is the bottom line, and the Browns didn’t get to 8-5 by accident.
They have the fifth-ranked scoring offense (27.7), a transformed offensive line and playmakers across the offense and special teams.
Yes, the defense ranks last in the league and collapsed down the stretch in Pittsburgh. But it’s made strides lately and played its best game of the year for 55 minutes in New Jersey. It may be as healthy as it’s been all year, which should provide a boost down the stretch.
I know as well as anyone under the age of 35 the pain Cleveland fans have been through. I can recite the litany of heartbreaks that have scarred Northeast Ohio and left many reluctant to put their hearts on the line again – especially for an imperfect underdog. I understand how the mind involuntarily goes to negative thoughts at the first sign of trouble.
But that’s no way to prepare for a run to the playoffs. The out-of-left-field revival of the Browns is what makes them a wonderful story, one worth embracing whole-heartedly.
The Browns are finally a fun team to watch. They score points and have a likable coach and a roster full of likable players. They have hometown heroes (Joe Jurevicius, Dave Zastudil) and Cinderella stories (Anderson, Joshua Cribbs).
They have a realistic chance to make the playoffs, win a game and be good for years to come. It’s OK to get excited.

HOPING FOR HONOLULU
The fan voting for the Pro Bowl ended Tuesday and the coaches and players must turn in their ballots this week. The rosters will be announced next Tuesday.
The Browns seem a lock to have their first Pro Bowler since linebacker Jamir Miller in 2002. The only question is: How many Browns will make the trip to Honolulu?
Edwards seems like a sure thing with 13 touchdown catches. Left guard Eric Steinbach has led the fan voting, has helped turn the line into a strength and should earn his first Pro Bowl nod.
The next likeliest candidate is Cribbs, who has a chance to go as a kick returner and a special teamer. He was held in check Sunday in his personal battle with Leon Washington, but is a serious candidate for team MVP and could make it for his versatility alone.
Winslow is deserving at tight end, but he may lose out to San Diego’s Antonio Gates and Kansas City’s Tony Gonzalez. Rookie left tackle Joe Thomas is also a possibility, but linemen – like Steinbach – usually have to pay their dues.
Three Pro Bowlers seems like the right number, a sign that the Browns have arrived and gained the respect of the league. Any fewer would be a snub, any more would be frosting on the cake.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.