Please pass the oxygen
Breathe, Cleveland. Breathe the air. It is rarefied.
Don’t look now – OK, go ahead and look – but your Cleveland Browns are in first place in the AFC North. That’s right. All by themselves after week 10.
Check out the standings on line. Right at the top of the AFC North – and no, it is not a misprint or typo – are the Browns.
This is not a joke. It is not a tease. April 1 is almost five months away. It is real, thanks in large part to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers traveled to New Jersey Sunday and lost, 20-13, to the one-victory-this-season New York Jets, tumbling all the way to third place in the most competitive division in the National Football League.
The Browns can empathize with the Steelers, although that might be difficult to do in light of the result. The Steelers now know what it’s like to lose to an inferior opponent. So do the Browns, having done so a few weeks ago to the winless Jacksonville Jaguars.
Actually, it was Pittsburgh’s second loss inflicted by one of the NFL’s bottom feeders, having been embarrassed, at home no less, by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who registered their only victory of the season several weeks ago.
For the first time since Nov. 6, 1994, the Browns lead their division after 10 weeks of the season. Back then, they were the original Browns and it was called the AFC Central with Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and the Houston Oilers joining them.
On that date in 1994, the Browns knocked of the New England Patriots, 13-6, at home in the old Stadium to take the AFC Central lead in week 10 with a 7-2 record, one game better than the Steelers.
They held or shared that lead with Pittsburgh for the next three weeks before losing it to the Steelers in week 14, falling to the New York Giants while Pittsburgh defeated Cincinnati.
The Steelers went on to win the division with a 12-4 record, one game better than the Browns, who defeated New England again in a wild card game before losing to the Steelers a third time that season, 29-9, in a division playoff game.
It is almost a surreal feeling to wrap your head around the fact the Browns own first place today. The team that has been laughed at and ridiculed unceremoniously for the major part of the last 15 seasons is no longer the butt of jokes.
Yes, there are still seven games remaining on the schedule, four of them on the road, where they have had all kinds of problems since the resurrection. And for the first time in a long time, they sport bull’s-eyes on their backs.
But for the first time since the 2007 season, when they finished with a 10-6 record but failed to make the playoffs, their fans will be treated to games of relevance, of importance. We’ll finally have the chance to see how this team handles the pressure.
Enjoy it, Cleveland. You have gone through enough tough times to bask in the glow of first place. No matter what happens from here on out, the lofty perch atop the AFC North right now is worth the feeling.
So breathe the air. Take it all in. Savor it. This very well might signal the beginning of the turnaround for which Browns fans have longed after all those years of frustration.