|Must-see-TV: Browns set to tune in as playoff future is settled in Indy|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 27 December 2007 15:23|
The Cleveland Browns have a busier-than-usual Sunday ahead.
It could be their last one together for awhile.
Fumbling away a win at Cincinnati last week has left the Browns, arguably the NFL's biggest surprise of 2007, in a vulnerable position heading into their season finale at home against the San Francisco 49ers.
Even if they win, the Browns (9-6) need Tennessee (9-6) to lose at Indianapolis later that night in order to make the AFC playoffs for the first time since 2002 and for only the second time since their 1999 expansion revival.
Cleveland can also lose and still make the postseason as a wild card, but that will require a tie by the Titans and Colts. That's a long shot, but so too were the Browns when the season kicked off way back in September.
For Browns center Hank Fraley, there's only one certainty about an unusual, climactic day of this regular season.
``It will be the first time I've ever rooted for the Colts,'' he said.
Cleveland fans, too, will be pulling for Peyton Manning and the rest of Indianapolis' starters to build a big lead before Colts coach Tony Dungy begins sending in his backups, which could happen as early as the first quarter.
It didn't have to be this difficult for the Browns, who would have secured a spot in the postseason with a win over the Bengals, their cross-state rivals. Instead, a 19-14 loss has put them in peril.
``We had an opportunity to close the playoffs out and get the wild card, but we didn't handle our business,'' Browns running back Jamal Lewis said. ``We have no one to blame but ourselves.''
Much of the postgame criticism was directed at quarterback Derek Anderson, the 24-year-old gunslinger who had been brilliant before throwing a season-high four interceptions in the biggest game of his career.
The Browns, though, are counting on Anderson to bounce back against the 49ers.
``I expect to see the same old D.A., throw the ball around and wing it,'' Fraley said. ``We had a couple bad breaks, a couple turnovers. We had chances to overcome those turnovers and get back on top and didn't take advantage of it.
``Everybody wants to point a finger at Derek, but there's 60 or 70 plays a game. We win and lose as a team, it's not just one guy here. It gets pointed out because you're the quarterback. We as a team lost that game.''
At least the Browns have a healthy quarterback - or two. The 49ers (5-10) enter the finale of their fifth straight losing season with major QB issues.
Shaun Hill, a longtime backup who didn't throw his first pass in an NFL game until earlier this month, missed some practice time with back spasms. Hill has led the 49ers to consecutive wins over Cincinnati and Tampa Bay, but he took a hard hit on a scramble against the Buccaneers and was still showing signs from the punishing earlier this week.
If Hill can't play, the 49ers will turn to Chris Weinke, the 2000 Heisman Trophy winner and former Carolina quarterback who is having to cram to learn San Francisco's playbook.
``Each day I'm here, I become more comfortable,'' Weinke said. ``It's just been a lot of studying the last two weeks. I prepare like I'm the starter every week, because in this game, you never know. When you're not playing the game or it's taken from you, you appreciate it that much more when you get another chance.''
Another chance. The Browns would love one.
But although they blew one last week, they can still finish the season - playoff bid or not - on a high note.
A win would:
-Extend Cleveland's home winning streak to seven games.
-Make the Browns 7-1 at home for the first time in franchise history.
-Give the Browns their first 10-win season since '99.
-Further validate a surprising season no one imagined possible, especially not after a 34-7 loss to Pittsburgh in Week 1.
Nose tackle Shaun Smith bristled when asked if not making the postseason would be a downer for the Browns, who went 4-12 in 2006.
``Why would it be a disappointment?'' he said ``Everyone keeps saying it would be a disappointment, but look at us. We won nine games so far and we're trying to get our 10th victory. You can't win every game in this business.
``We've got something to build on. It could be a lot worse. We could be 4-12 like we were last year and everybody would be upset, talking about 'Fire the coach, do this and do that.' But it's not like that. There are a lot of positives and we've got to just keep building on it.''
The Colts can help the Browns lay the next stepping stone.
Following Sunday's game, Fraley plans to do a little tailgating with family and friends before heading home to watch Titans-Colts.
Whether he goes back to work or packs his helmet away for the winter is in someone else's hands.
``It's a little weird,'' he said. ``We'll just hope we're coming in Monday preparing to go to Pittsburgh or San Diego.''