As much as the Cleveland Browns may have had to gain in their game against the New York Giants Monday night, they really had nothing to lose. With a season on the verge of spiraling completely out of control, the Browns came out ragged but loose and almost carefree surprising the Giants and a national television audience with a dominating 35-14 win against last season's Super Bowl champs.
The record will reflect that the fatal blow was delivered by cornerback Eric Wright when he took Giants' quarterback Eli Manning's third interception of the game 94-yards with just over 8 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Browns quarterback Derek Anderson and receiver Braylon Edwards finished the job with a two-point conversion that gave the team an insurmountable 21-point lead.
But the real story of the game was a team rejuvenated on both sides by a bye week that came not a moment too soon. The offensive line, working better than it has all season, welcomed back Ryan Tucker at right guard and it had a settling effect. Anderson, though pressured at times, wasn't sacked and had enough time to constantly find open receivers. Anderson's ability to put together a vertical passing game kept the Giants' defense from stacking the box near the line of scrimmage. In the process, the running game opened up for 144 yards, 88 of which were by Jamal Lewis on 21 caries. Maybe the Browns ought to petition the league to schedule more bye weeks.
The Giants tried to make it interesting near the end with a quick drive that took them deep into Browns' territory. But like most of what the Giants did all night, that drive, too, ended in frustration as the Browns held on 4th and two and took over on downs at their own 6-yard line with just under four minutes to play. The Browns then closed out the game on two rushing first downs by Lewis.
The Browns' performance as dominating as it was unlikely stood as redemption of sorts for the pitiful performance they put on this same national stage against this same team during the preseason. The win doesn't turn them suddenly into competitors but it does give them something far more to build on then if they had simply played well in another loss. It also sent a bit of a message to the rest of the league that whatever else the Browns might be, they aren't the Cincinnati Bengals, the Detroit Lions or the Kansas City Chiefs.
As entertaining of a game as it ended up being for the Browns and their fans, it certainly didn't start out that way. Kick returner Josh Cribbs fumbled the opening kickoff, quarterback Derek Anderson through his first pass poorly and at the feet of Donte' Stallworth, and Tucker lined up illegally, which was declined. It set an ominous tone.
But before that emotion could even take, receiver Edwards caught a short pass from Anderson and turned it into a 49-yard play and suddenly a sign of life appeared, like a blade of fresh grass popping through the Browns' dry cracked soil of a season. The drive fizzled however first on a false start penalty and then on a fumbled exchange between center Hank Fraley and Anderson, forcing the Browns to settle for a 26-yard Phil Dawson field goal as a smattering of boos in a homage to more red zone futility. It wouldn't last.
Meanwhile, the Giants weren't quite out of sync but they weren't exactly hitting on each cylinder either. During their first drive, Manning was picked off by Brodney Pool near the Browns' goal line. Pool took the ball back to the Browns' 29-yard line but the Browns weren't able to convert the turnover into points when a Dawson 51-yard field goal fell short. The drive did feature the debut of the Browns' "Flash" formation, so named for former Kent State Golden Flash Josh Cribbs. Cribbs took a direct snap from center and ran around left end for 12 yards.
The Giants then temporarily got back on track to take their only lead at 7-3 with a 6-play 58-yard drive that culminated with a 6-yard run by Brandon Jacobs, who almost pushed himself clear through safety Mike Adams on his way to the end zone to help give the Giants the 7-3 lead. It was enough to make Browns' defensive lineman Corey Williams rethink that "tiptoe" comment he made about Jacobs earlier in the week. The key play on the drive, though, was the Giants' conversion of a third down and 4 from the Browns' 11-yard line to set up the Jacobs touchdown run.
Whatever confidence that drive gave the Giants dissipated quickly. Anderson immediately hit Edwards on the Browns' next play with a 70-yard pass that saw Edwards, who was sprinting past cornerback Aaron Ross down the right side. Edwards actually had to wait oh so briefly for Anderson's pass to arrive, allowing Ross enough time to recover and tackle Edwards at the 4-yard line, temporarily saving a touchdown. This time, the Browns were able to convert, with Lewis taking it in from there to help give the Browns a 10-7 lead. It was the real kick the team needed.
Suddenly a sideline that had looked mostly befuddled and frustrated all season was instead smiling and looking as if they finally were enjoying themselves. The defense meanwhile was doing its part, forcing the Giants to punt in a drive that was hurt by Giants penalties and some outstanding coverage by cornerback Brandon McDonald on Giants' receiver Plaxico Burress.
That series breathed further life into the offense in general and Anderson in particular. Displaying a confidence that has mostly been missing all season Anderson led the Brown on an efficient 9-play, 77-yard drive that ended with an Anderson to Darnell Dinkens, 22-yard touchdown play. The Dawson extra point pushed the Browns lead to 17-7 with just over two minutes to play in the half.
The Browns had a chance to take that lead into the locker room but a costly illegal contact penalty on Adams on the Giants next drive nullified what looked like a Manning fumble that was recovered by linebacker D'Qwell Jackson at the Browns 21-yard line. It gave the Giants the ball at the 16-yard line and from there a quick first down followed by a three-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Burress helped narrow the Browns' lead to three. The Browns also had another chance to kill that Giants' drive but Eric Wright couldn't quite haul in a pass headed for Domenik Hixon, a mistake he more than made up for later in the game. If it gave the Giants hope in a game that was closer than it should have been at that point, it didn't last long.
Whatever play the Giants imagined to start the second half went quickly awry when Manning was intercepted by McDonald on the Browns 33-yard line on the half's first play. The pass was intended for Burress who turned inside as Manning threw outside and into the waiting arms of McDonald. McDonald returned the ball 21- yards to the Giants 46-yard line. It was symptomatic of everything that plagued the Giants all evening.
The Browns' offense then added its own razzle dazzle with a double reverse, Anderson handing off to Cribbs sprinting around left end who then handed off to Jerome Harrison running in the other direction. Harrison sped around left end for a 33-yard run. But two running plays and an incompletion to Stallworth in the end zone forced another 26-yard field goal for Dawson and pushed the Browns lead to 20-14.
After forcing the Giants to punt, the Browns had a chance to essentially put the game away late in the third quarter. In one of the strangest drives imaginable, the Browns ultimately scored on an Anderson to Edwards 11-yard touchdown pass to help give them a 27-14, but it was hardly a thing of beauty. The drive was 14 plays long and consumed over 8 minutes, neither necessarily by design. For nearly every good play executed, the Browns found themselves marching backward after a penalty. In all the drive featured three false start penalties, one holding penalty and a delay of game for good measure. To their credit, the offense overcame the self-inflicted adversity and the drive had its intended effect, essentially breaking the Giants' spirit.
That doesn't mean the Gants went down without a fight. Despite being pinned back near their own goal line as a result of a poor kick return and an offensive face mask penalty, the Giants and Manning were seemingly on their way to closing the gap to 6 points when Manning threw his third interception of the game, the backbreaker that Wright took back 94 yards for the touchdown and the 33-14 lead. The two-point conversion to Edwards was the final margin of difference.
The evening featured not only a return from a lengthy absence by the Browns on Monday night football, but a return from a lengthy absence by an offense that was so potent last season but mostly impotent this season. Edwards had his best game as a pro, catching 5 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown. Anderson, despite playing without tight end Kellen Winslow, managed his best game since last season's win against the Seahawks in that season's eighth game. He completely outplayed Manning, and it wasn't close. Anderson went 18-29 for 310 yards and two touchdowns. Just as importantly, he didn't throw an interception and finished the evening with 121 rating. Manning meanwhile looked flustered and played unevenly. Pressured, he may have had as many completions as Anderson on just one more attempt, but it was for only 196 yards and one touchdown. The difference, though, was the three interceptions that kept him from finishing off drives.
It was, unquestionably, as gratifying of a performance as the Browns have had in years. It was the kind of win that in some small sense justified some of its early season hype. There is still a significant amount of work for the Browns to overtake the Steelers, let alone make the playoffs. But at least on this night, the hill looks far less steep than it did just a day or two ago.