It was the rekindling of an old torrid love affair -- the Browns and their fans -- a tingly sort of night that reminded one witness of Washington in the early Allen years with the Redskins.

Or anytime a town begins to sense its team belongs among the best. Especially a Cleveland, which has been another day older and deeper in debt for ever so long.

And these Browns can play. They are imaginative and talented, but also unlucky. It says here they could win two of the three NFC divisional championships; they might not make the playoffs at all, however, being in the same division with Pittsburgh and the Houston Campbells.

Nobody was of a negative mind after that 19-point rout of Dallas Monday night, or at least not until a fan may have severely injured Lyle Alzado's left knee during the celebration. Former President Ford, a guest of Brown owner Art Modell, even spoke to the team.

"For Pittsburgh," cracked offensive tackle Doug Dieken, "Art's promised us the Pope."

In truth, the players are offering no promises. But they offered hope to fans accustomed to Browns winning more than 70 percent of their games for more than 20 years at one point and then accustomed to mediocrity at best the last several years.

And hope to the Redskins and everyone who incorrectly saw the Cowboys as invincible in the entire National Conference. They still are the class of the NFC, though perhaps only the third or fourth best team in the NFL now that Too Tall Jones has become a boxer.

The Browns are an interesting mix of young and immensely skilled players and elder statesmen who know how to be successful in the NFL and what price that exacts.

"It's nice to have something of a runaway for this game," said left guard George Buehler, who played on Oakland's Super Bowl championship team. "I think the talent's here. It's just a matter of maturity. Only time will tell about that, of course, but there's evidence we can handle ourselves.

"We proved we can handle the awe of Dallas. And the 0-2 teams, like Baltimore the week before. It's a matter of maintaining this level all season."

The Browns also are a meld of thinkers and Joe Bob Priddys -- and they are fortunate to have a coach who appeals to all of them. Or at least Sam Rutigliano can relate to everyone in his clubhouse.

He is not one of the familiar names in coaching, though Washington-area fans may recall his being on Lou Saban's Maryland staff in 1966. In his second season as Brown coach, he is probably the most versatile man in a profession cluttered with narrow minds.

"Sometimes he will quote Shakespeare to us," said Calvin Hill. "From MacBeth maybe, or Hamlet."

The former literature major in him allows Rutigliano to stand before the Browns and say: "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly."

The New York City street in him allows Rutigliano to translate that into: "Ah, let's kick their butts as soon as they tee it up."

The Browns went after Dallas in a hurry, with 20 points in the first quarter and two long touchdown passes.

"We're kinda like everyone else," Rutigliano said. "We all say we're gonna throw on Dallas on first down -- and normally you'll get 28 chances to do that. But so many teams say they'll throw on first down against them and then don't. We were determined to do that tonight.

"And when we got that (20-0) lead we didn't sit on it."

The Cowboys were confused and a bit overmatched at times. Their usual defensive strength, the front four, was so ineffective the linebackers were forced to help out on pass rushes.

Dallas' only quarterback trap of the game came from a linebacker, Thomas Henderson, and when D. D. Lewis tried a blitz over his head for a short completion that became a 27-yard gain.

"This game is a little different when you get to the top," Coach Tom Landry said. Then, correctly analytical as always, he added: "It's too early to prove exactly where anybody is. It was a great time for the Browns to gain a little prestige -- and they did it."

Surprisingly, Hill, who has played for both, finds the extroverted Rutigliano and the introverted Landry similar in the important phase of coaching.

"They're both good people," Hill said. "That's become obvious to me now about Landry, that aside from football he's very interesting. I thought he was exceedingly cold at one time; I don't think that now.

"Sam also has everything in perspective. He came in here (before the game) and said: 'I'm not nervous. Hey, Tuesday'll follow Monday.' He's a nice man to work for."

Rutigliano was concerned, if not nervous, as Hill was talking, for Alzado's already troublesome knee was being placed in a cast. As he was about to step down into the baseball dugout and move toward the clubhouse after the game, a fan pushed an usher off the dugout roof.

The usher landed atop Alzado, who slipped and landed badly on the left knee. Teammates had to support him on their shoulders into the clubhouse. Nearby, running back Greg Pruitt also was being fitted with a cast.

"Politics," said Rutigliano, still outwardly confident. "I saw the president (Ford) and I'm going into politics. What did he say to us? He just wanted some votes."