|GAME OF THE WEEK: Lake effect: Browns, Bills clash in matchup of suffering sports cities|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 13 December 2007 13:34|
Cleveland and Buffalo: Where losing is a way of life.
Generations of fans in these two proud cities have endured more than their share of tortuous losses. And most of those low, gut-wrenching moments have been tagged for eternity with catchy nicknames like ``The Drive,'' ``Wide Right,'' ``The Fumble,'' and ``The Music City Miracle.''
Nobody does defeat like Clevelanders or Buffalonians, who've had misery served to them like blue cheese with chicken wings.
This week, though, only one set of these rabid, Rust Belt fans will have to suffer.
The Browns (8-5) and Bills (7-6), two surprise teams lumped in with the league's other bottom feeders before the season began, will play Sunday in a showdown with AFC playoff implications.
No, that was not a misprint.
``A lot of people have been calling me and talking about this game for a while,'' said Bills wide receiver Lee Evans, who grew up in Cleveland. ``A Buffalo-Cleveland game with playoff implications.
``Nobody would've thought that.''
Certainly no one outside Western New York or Northeast Ohio thought it possible. But folks are coming around. Even Browns coach Romeo Crennel, who has been downplaying his club's playoff push for weeks, seemed to get caught up in the excitement.
``I don't know if you noticed or not,'' Crennel said, opening his news conference earlier this week. ``But there's a big game this week - in Cleveland.''
For the Browns, Sunday's game is arguably the franchise's biggest since returning to the NFL via expansion in 1999. Cleveland has made just one playoff appearance (2002) and had only one winning season since its rebirth.
In between, there have been coaching changes, roster overhauls, busted draft picks and a succession of losing seasons. Not this one, however, as the Browns are 5-1 in their lakefront stadium.
``I'm just excited that our fans who have been with us all these years finally have a game - at home - to cheer that really matters,'' said Browns kicker Phil Dawson, the only player left from Cleveland's '99 team. ``They've been with us through thick and thin.''
The Bills, too, are in a prolonged postseason drought. They are one of four teams who haven't made the playoffs this decade, an eternity for a team that won four consecutive AFC titles in the 1990s.
Buffalo safety Donte Whitner has a unique perspective on the Browns-Bills matchup. A Cleveland native, he joked he's had this game circled on his calendar for more than a few months.
``Since I was born,'' he said.
Whitner was just 5 years old when he attended his first Browns game, taken there by an uncle who made sure his nephew understood the importance of Jim Brown and what it meant to bleed brown and orange.
Now in his second season with Buffalo, the 22-year-old Whitner sees the depressing parallels between the teams in cursed, neighboring cities longing for a Super Bowl title.
``I bet the fans here in Buffalo feel the same way about this organization as the Cleveland fans feel,'' said Whitner. ``They feel so connected and they want them to do well. But it seems like every year they just keep falling short.
``And it's, 'We need another player and we have a young team, and who are we going to pick in the draft?' People are really tired of that. People want to win. People want to go the playoffs, have something to cheer about. So it's time to give them something to cheer about around here and stop waiting until next year and making up excuses. Just be a good team.''
It's tough to gauge just how good - or bad - the Bills might be. They have the league's 28th-ranked offense and 30th overall defense. All seven of Buffalo's wins have come against losing teams, including two each against the New York Jets and winless Miami Dolphins.
Take away a pair of 1-point losses to Denver and Dallas, the Bills have been outscored 156-34.
``It's time for us to really find out who we are, and we'll do that through this game,'' Whitner said. ``We'll find out if we're a playoff-caliber team or if we're just faking. With this game we'll find out a lot about ourselves.''
The Browns, who currently have the No. 6 spot in the playoffs, are at a similar crossroads. To this point, they've overcome having the league's worst defense with an offense full of big-play threats.
A win on Sunday would put them closer to a playoff berth and further energize a football-crazed city ready to erupt.
Like Whitner and Evans, Cleveland wide receiver Joe Jurevicius was raised to love the Browns. He grew up on the city's east side, and this week he recalled watching playoff games on a black-and-white TV in his garage.
Jurevicius has felt Cleveland quiver for the Browns before.
``All our fans deserve this, the city deserves this, at least to have this opportunity,'' Jurevicius said, wearing an Indians cap and Browns sweatshirt. ``A lot of guys deserve this opportunity we have in front of us. Deep down, I know guys have excitement. But I don't think we're to the point where we can let it out. We've got to finish the job.''
Whitner, though, knows that's never been easy for the Browns or any of Cleveland's other pro teams.
``The Browns always found a way to mess it up,'' he said. ``Same thing with the Indians, one out from winning the World Series, they found a way to mess it up. The Cavs go to the NBA finals, find a way to mess it up. I'm looking at it from both sides as a fan and as an opponent.
``I don't want the Browns to go to the playoffs.''