The most primal instinct that an animal possesses is survival. Regardless of the circumstances and obstacles surrounding the beast, it will never stop fighting. To the very core, and against all odds, an animal will simply refuse to die. While this analogy may be a little strong for a football game, the basic premise is a significant theme in Sunday night’s Browns-Steelers matchup.
Last week, the Browns were soundly, some would even say embarrassingly, beaten by Dallas. The offense was completely out of sync, and the defense looked as if it was playing with nine guys on the field. Even Romeo Crennel received a lot of criticism for not having the team ready to play and for his questionable field goal call in the fourth quarter. As I’ve stated in a previous column, the Cowboys are good – damn good – but nevertheless, to me, the Browns looked like a very average team at best. Others would have you believe they looked downright awful. Either way, the Browns certainly did not look like the team that many of the so-called “experts” picked to make their first playoff appearance since 2003.
And speaking of the 2003 playoff game, who should happen to visit Cleveland Browns Stadium this weekend but the hated Pittsburgh Steelers, 36-33 winners in that game and winners of the last nine (yes, I said nine) meetings between the two teams. The Steelers, for their part, were very impressive last week in a 38-17 rout of the Texans in a game that was, in all actuality, over by halftime. It should come as no surprise, then, that many expect another decisive Steeler victory.
Combine these issues along with a rapidly growing injury report (no Sean Jones!), and the Browns find themselves backed into a (very) intimidating corner. First and foremost, everyone knows that the road to the playoffs runs directly along the Three Rivers. With the extremely difficult schedule in front of the Browns (and the rest of the AFC North), the divisional games are more important than ever. For the prospect of a run at the post-season, this game is about as close as it comes to a must-win.
However, from a much more psychological standpoint, the Browns have an incredible amount to prove. Not only must the Browns prove to us, their fans, that they are the team we think they should be, but they need to prove this to the media-at-large as well. Over the past several days, more national pundits have jumped off the Browns’ bandwagon than people who jumped off the Titanic. And, above all, the Browns need to prove to the rest of the NFL – especially the Steelers – that they are not, as one Yinzer has said to me, the “same old Browns.” Never underestimate the mental and emotional toll that being repeatedly beaten by a rival can take on a team.
Still, all of these factors could be – yes, might actually be – a good thing. The Browns are in the unique position to play like a team with nothing to lose and everything to gain. If they do lose the game, the rest of the remaining bandwagoners will certainly jump, and some fans will even write the season off entirely. But let’s be honest - it’s not as if that hasn’t happened before.
Now, if the Browns win? This is the type of win that can jump-start a season (please see Week 2, 2007). It can give them the confidence that, as a fairly young team, they may very well need. Going forward, they can lean on this confidence when they take on the Indys, Phillys, and Jacksonvilles of the league. Not only that, but they will have the upper-hand in the AFC North, and with games at Cincitucky and Baltimore up-coming, the Browns would give themselves an excellent shot at heading into the bye week at 3-1 and in first place in the division. With a victory, the Browns will have proven – on primetime national television, no less – that they are the team that everyone expected them to be. And best of all – if not most importantly of all – the Browns will have shown the Steelers that the road to the playoffs might be taking a detour through C-Town this year, and for future years to come.
In the face of adversity, football teams, like animals, are confronted with the great choice of ‘fight or flight.’ Simply put, the Browns must play like an animal fighting for survival. They must be intense, nasty, fierce, violent, and unrelenting from the opening kick to the final whistle. They must feed off of a frenzied crowd and play with incredible emotion, pride, and determination. They must sell-out on every single play and hold nothing back. Obviously, the Browns need to fight. They must unify as 53 men backed into a corner, ready to not only protect themselves and each other and everything they’ve worked for, but ready to aggressively attack anything that threatens them. Down to the bone, they must play each play like it’s their last play and the most important play they’ve ever played. Sure, it’s a cliché – and probably a more appropriate message for high school kids – but when the chips are stacked against you, as they are against the Browns this week, what other choice is there?
C’mon, Romeo – bring the house on a blitz and test the Steelers’ questionable offensive line! C’mon, Derek – use your weapons and do not be afraid to make a mistake! C’mon, Brodney – give someone else a concussion for a change! In the end, who will step up and be the 2008 version of Turkey Jones?
The Browns say they are sick of losing to Pittsburgh. Romeo, in all his marshmallow-ness, has got to be sick of losing to Pittsburgh. Well, it’s time the Browns do something about it. What have they got to lose?