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Sunday, October 12, 2008
Browns approaching breaking point

By James Walker
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

CLEVELAND -- On Columbus Day, the Cleveland Browns will attempt to discover their identity for the 2008 season.

Are they the talented collection of players that many felt were playoff contenders in the AFC? Or are the Browns an over-hyped, underachieving group that might fail to duplicate the success of the 10-win 2007 season?

The Browns and the rest of the nation will get their answer when Cleveland plays host to the undefeated New York Giants on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" (8:30 ET). The Browns, with no expectations, surprised the league last season.

At 1-3, Cleveland enters this game as significant underdogs to the Giants, who have won eight in a row and an NFL-best 11 straight road games.

 
 G Fiume/Getty Images
 

Romeo Crennel and the Cleveland Browns will learn a lot about their season Monday night against the New York Giants.

The Browns find themselves at a breaking point. It's only October, but if Cleveland wants to keep its postseason hopes alive it comes down to a one-game season against the defending champs.

"[A win] would have a lot of impact because it would put us back in the mix," Browns Pro Bowl wide receiver Braylon Edwards said. "If you look at how the [NFL] season is going right now there is a lot of up and down things happening. Everybody is really in the thick of things for the most part. If we come out and get this win, it will boost us a little bit and I definitely think it will help us moving forward toward the rest of the season."

So what happened?

How did a 10-win team with seven returning Pro Bowlers from a year ago enter a must-win situation in early October against the defending Super Bowl champions?

The Giants contributed to the demise.

In New York's 37-34 preseason win over Cleveland Aug. 18, the Giants' starters pounded the Browns starters in the first half physically and on the scoreboard. New York jumped to a 30-3 lead and knocked out starting quarterback Derek Anderson (concussion) in the process before pulling its starters.

"The Giants were playing the game like it was a regular season game, and we were playing the game like it was a preseason game," Browns coach Romeo Crennel said.

Anderson, who missed the remainder of preseason, hasn't been the same. He has twice as many interceptions (six) than touchdowns (three) and the NFL's worst passer rating (49.9) of any quarterback with at least two starts. The poor performance through four games has Anderson dangerously close to losing his starting job to 2007 first-round pick Brady Quinn.

The Browns also have never been the same.

Their once high-powered offense is ranked last in the NFL in yards (210.8) per game. Edwards, who had 16 touchdowns in 2007, is among the league leaders in dropped passes this season and has just one touchdown in four games. Tailback Jamal Lewis also has been slowed by ankle and hamstring injuries.

Cleveland's defense has improved to middle of the pack in the NFL, but it's not to the point where it can take over games. Returner Joshua Cribbs also has been banged up, which significantly hurts Cleveland's special teams.

"Swagger" has been a key word in Cleveland's locker room this week. The Browns have not played with confidence all season and hope the bye week helps them get it back.

Cleveland is coming off a 20-12 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals and had 15 days off to rest and get healthy.

Previously sidelined key starters such as receiver Donte Stallworth and offensive lineman Ryan Tucker expect to see their first action of the season. This is as close to a full team as Cleveland's had all season, and the Browns believe they will show it Monday night.

Meanwhile, the New York Giants have been rolling. They boast the NFL's top-rated offense and third-ranked defense. The return of star receiver Plaxico Burress following a one-game suspension should make them even more dangerous.

There was some talk in Cleveland's locker room that the Giants might be overlooking the Browns. Last week New York took Wednesday off in preparation for this game, which is a rarity in the NFL. The Giants, coming off a 44-6 thrashing over the Seattle Seahawks, gave players the extra time off as a reward for their fast start.

"I know that they're probably not too concerned about coming up here to Cleveland to play," Crennel said. "But we're going to try to get ready and give them some concern on Monday night. It's going to be a good venue, the guys are excited about it and we're going to play a good football game."

The Browns are looking to the Giants for inspiration. New York began last season 0-2 but turned it around on their way to a Super Bowl victory. The Browns feel they also have the talent to turn around their season.

But to repeat the Giants' feat, Cleveland must first beat the Giants. And that's no easy task.

Whether the Browns turn it around or not, the nation will see plenty more of Cleveland. The team has three additional primetime games this year, including two more games on Monday night. So Monday provides an opportunity to have a good national showing.

"You think about [playing on Monday Night Football] as a kid, so I know everybody here is going to be ready to play," Anderson said. "You don't want to go out there and lay an egg. It's just a great opportunity for us."