October 20, 2014

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Scott Petrak: Two sides to Browns’ playoff fate

 We won’t know the playoff fate of the Browns until the Colts-Titans game is decided late Sunday night. With the Colts on cruise control and set to rest their stars for at least a half — Tennessee is a four-point favorite — the Browns are at best a 50-50 bet to reach the postseason.
Whatever the ultimate destiny of the Browns — playoffs or end of the season — the road there was long, fun and bumpy.
Playoff trip
We’ll take the optimistic approach first.
The Browns need a loss by Tennessee to make the playoffs (a tie and a Browns win would also work). Tennessee squeaked by the lowly Jets 10-6 Sunday at home, so a win in Indianapolis, even against the second string, is far from assured. Browns fans hope Peyton Manning throws a couple of touchdowns before retreating to the sideline.
Here are the five biggest reasons the Browns are even in position to be thinking about the playoffs with a week left in the season.
1. Derek Anderson.
This might be hard to swallow after the four-interception meltdown Sunday in Cincinnati, but the Browns wouldn’t be in the playoff discussion without “The Moose from Scappoose.”
Anderson took over as the starter in Week 2 and instantly transformed the Browns into an offensive machine capable of putting up huge numbers. He has thrown 28 touchdown passes, which is two short of Brian Sipe’s franchise record. Rookie Brady Quinn may very well turn out to be the quarterback of the future, but Anderson saved this season.
2. Outstanding O-line.
The weak link finally became a strength. It started in March when general manager Phil Savage signed left guard Eric Steinbach away from Cincinnati. Savage also re-signed center Hank Fraley and picked up journeyman interior lineman Seth McKinney.
The plan really came together on draft day, when Savage picked Wisconsin left tackle Joe Thomas at No. 3. Just like that, the Browns had talent and depth. Ryan Tucker’s move inside to right guard was the final piece in the puzzle, giving the Browns an athletic left side and a powerful right side of Tucker and tackle Kevin Shaffer.
Anderson has been sacked just 13 times. The previous season low since the team’s return in 1999 was 35 in 2002.
3. Shining stars.
Injuries slowed Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow early in their careers, but the former No. 1 picks have been at their best in 2007. They each went over 1,000 yards receiving – a franchise first – and Edwards’ 15 receiving touchdowns broke a 34-year-old team record.
Jamal Lewis added a power dimension at running back, giving the Browns too many weapons for the defense to contain. Lewis is set to become a free agent, but Edwards and Winslow (both 24) are signed long term, so defenses will have their hands full for a while.
4. Good health.
Browns fans know full well this had been a missing ingredient. That changed this year.
The Browns got their bad injuries out of the way early, as center LeCharles Bentley and cornerback Gary Baxter couldn’t make it back from torn patellar tendons – despite valiant efforts.
McKinney was lost at midseason with a shoulder injury, but he was the only starter placed on injured reserve until nose tackle Ethan Kelley was added Monday.
5. A little luck.
The respite from injuries was just part of the good fortune. Phil Dawson’s pinball field goal to force overtime in Baltimore, the late replay reversal against Seattle and a series of good bounces – many of which were tied to an increase in talent – kept the season moving in the right direction.
Luck will really be on the Browns’ side if the Colts knock off the Titans.

STAYING HOME
With a win Sunday at home versus the 49ers, the Browns will finish 10-6, their best record since 1994. But they could easily find their offseason starting Monday.
Here are the five biggest reasons the Browns need help to reach the postseason.
1. Travel nightmares.
The 19-14 loss to the Bengals on Sunday wasn’t the first time the Browns crumbled on the road. They went 3-5, with wins versus the subpar Jets, Ravens and Rams.
The Browns started slowly most of the time, and when they did start quickly in Pittsburgh, they still managed to collapse in the second half. If the Browns had beaten Oakland, Arizona or Cincinnati – all winnable games – they’d have a playoff berth all but locked up.
2. Nat Dorsey.
The loss in Oakland came in Week 3 and dropped the Browns to 1-2, so at the time it was nothing more than a heartbreaker in another lost season. But as the wins piled up, the last-second loss loomed larger and larger.
Dawson made the kick that would’ve won the game, but Oakland coach Lane Kiffin called timeout before the snap. Dawson’s second try was blocked when backup offensive lineman Nat Dorsey was pushed back. Dorsey has been replaced on the field-goal team by Tucker, who missed the Raiders game while serving a steroid suspension.
3. Timeout trouble.
Every second was precious, yet the Browns used two timeouts to unsuccessfully challenge one Steelers touchdown in the fourth quarter in Pittsburgh. When Cleveland, frantically trying to drive down the field, had to settle for a 52-yard field-goal try in an attempt to force overtime, the inexcusable clock management blunder was magnified.
4. Defensive deficiency.
Despite signs of progress after midseason, the defense still ranked 32nd. No matter how well the offense played, the defense found a way to keep the opponent in the game.
When it mattered most in Cincinnati, the defense allowed the Bengals to rush for 155 yards and kill precious time.
5. Derek Anderson.
If the Browns don’t make the playoffs, he won’t be able to escape the dreadful effort in Cincinnati.
Four interceptions are bad enough, but two led to Bengal touchdowns and two came as the Browns were about to score. If he has just an average day, the Browns win and are in the playoffs. It’s a shame he picked the biggest game of the year to play his worst.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.