From the moment John Elway's 98-yard drive helped Denver beat Cleveland in the AFC title game a year ago, the Browns vowed that the 1987 season would be one giant crusade to get to Super Bowl XXII. So, here come the Browns, fresh and tanned after three days of practice at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., ready to take on the Indianapolis Colts, the AFC and the world.
The Browns certainly didn't sulk about last year's misfortune. They won an improved AFC Central for the third consecutive year. Only the Chicago Bears, with four consecutive division titles, have a longer string than Cleveland. The Browns' 22-9 record the last two seasons is the best mark in the AFC. The Browns have beaten teams running, passing, with special teams and with defense.
Quarterback Bernie Kosar is only 24 years old and already he has won three AFC Central titles. Marty Schottenheimer has been a head coach (at any level) only three full seasons and already, coincidentally, he has also won three titles.
And what do the Browns really have to show for all of this? If you measure real success by at least making it to the Super Bowl, then the answer is nothing.
But now, the Browns come into the playoffs angrier than any team in the playoffs with the possible exception of the Bears.
The three teams that probably stand in Cleveland's way of a Super Bowl championship are Indianapolis (Saturday's opponent in one AFC semifinal), Denver and San Francisco. The Browns have lost to all three in the last year. All three were embarrassing defeats.
Denver's overtime victory at Cleveland last year kept the Browns out of the Super Bowl; San Francisco's 38-24 victory on Thanksgiving showed the Browns they better rethink their standing in the league; and the Colts' 9-7 victory Dec. 6 at Cleveland really hit the Browns hard. But since then, they regrouped to finish 10-5, winning games on the road against the Raiders and Steelers -- two places the Browns have played wretchedly in the past -- to regain some momentum coming into the playoffs. The crusade, again, is on.
"We have high expectations," running back Kevin Mack said earlier this week, "and we have to go out and fulfill them or we're going to be very disappointed. Just making the playoffs isn't enough."
Linebacker Clay Matthews was just as adamant, saying, "The idea is to get to the Super Bowl. If Indianapolis is in the way, fine. If it was Seattle, that's just another step along the way. In my mind, to say we want to beat Indianapolis for revenge would be setting our goals too low."
The Browns certainly will not be accused of doing that. "I think this year's team is better than last year's," linebacker Eddie Johnson said. "Last year made us a better team. We were able to experience the sweet taste of victory and the agony of defeat. We don't want to repeat the second phase."
The Browns, having produced a league-high seven Pro Bowl players, feel they have reason to be cocky, despite never having been to the Super Bowl. The funny thing is that few people outside of Cleveland would recognize any of the names other than Kosar.
And even Kosar went overlooked most of the season. His 22 touchdown passes and nine interceptions give him the best touchdown-interception ratio in the AFC. He still looks awkward trying to move away from a rush and throws almost exclusively sidearm for long stretches. But there isn't a more efficient passer in the conference. And he has been sacked only nine times in the last eight games, even though some of the credit for that has to go to the offensive line, which includes a Pro Bowler in right tackle Cody Risien.
Quick, name a Browns receiver who isn't Ozzie Newsome. Give up? Running back Earnest Byner, a 1,000-yard rusher in 1985 who was on injured reserve the final nine games of last season, has returned to find a new life as the Browns' leading pass receiver. Kosar's performance is even more important considering that Mack, also a 1,000-yard rusher in 1985, rushed for 735 yards this season, but for an average of only 3.7 yards per carry.
Kosar has thrown to at least seven receivers in 10 games, with tiny Webster Slaughter and Brian Brennan combining for 100 receptions. Newsome, the veteran tight end, was only the No. 4 receiver, with 34 receptions. Another of Cleveland's wide-outs, Reggie Langhorne, said, "With Bernie, you don't measure him on how he looks. He takes charge and the bottom line is, we believe in him."
Kosar, who would be a rookie this season if he had stayed at the University of Miami for his final two years of eligibility -- he graduated after only three years -- shrugs and says, "Age is no excuse for failure."
With a diverse, efficient passing game, the Browns almost overcame having a rushing attack that ranked 21st out of 28 teams. Often, teams that don't run the ball well also don't defend the run well. But the Browns finished No. 1 in the AFC against the rush and with the No. 3 overall defense in the NFL.
The defense has Pro Bowlers in cornerbacks Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon, nose tackle Bob Golic and linebacker Eddie Johnson, which is probably why the Browns held opponents to under 20 points in seven of the 12 games the regulars played this season.
"There are a lot of reasons we have gotten back to the playoffs," Schottenheimer said. "We've all had a sense of purpose, a direction, if you will. The focus is to win the Super Bowl."