CINCINNATI Finally thawed out from a snow-caked victory that sledded them to the doorstep of the playoffs, the Cleveland Browns took some time to reminisce about the win that got it all started.
How long ago was that?
"The sun was still shining," quarterback Derek Anderson mused.
Long before the first snowflake fell on the shore of Lake Erie, the Browns (9-5) were digging out. They traded quarterback Charlie Frye to Seattle only two days after the were dominated by Pittsburgh in the season opener. Fans were screaming for rookie Brady Quinn to get his chance, and for coach Romeo Crennel to see his end.
Worse, the Bengals (5-9) were coming to town off a season-opening win against Baltimore that left them rather full of themselves. Receiver Chad Johnson was promising a dive into the Dawg Pound after he got into the end zone.
It had all the ingredients for an ugly afternoon.
"We'd lost the first one, and in not a good way," Crennel said. "If we'd lost the second one, then we'd have been down two games in the division and all the naysayers would have been saying we're no good. You know what goes along with losing. So that would have been bad for us."
Instead, bad migrated south for the season.
Browns 51, Bengals 45.
The implausible victory on Sept. 16 was a turning point for both teams. The Browns turned it into a foundation for their unexpected surge toward the playoffs, one that they can complete with a victory Sunday over the team that got them going on that early autumn afternoon.
"I think we were already written off," center Hank Fraley said. "We knew how important it was for the next game to come out and play well as a team. It was a good feeling. It sparked our team and gave us the confidence that, hey, we can play with anybody. It kind of sparked our whole season."
The Bengals went the other way.
All the good karma from that first-week win was washed away by a performance that defied reason but looked familiar. The offense ran at full throttle Carson Palmer threw six touchdown passes while the defense reverted to its bumbling form of the last few years.
Playoffs? Not for this bunch.
"You can look at that now and say that's where it all started to go downhill for us," defensive captain John Thornton said. "We came into that game with high hopes; we'd just beat Baltimore and played a real good game. Then we came out of that game shocked, basically. It hurt us, but it didn't ruin our season."
No, but the ruin had started to creep in. Now, all that's left is to try to salvage a little self-respect in the rematch.
A victory Sunday would give the Browns their first playoff berth since the 2002 season, when they lost to Pittsburgh 36-33 in a first-round game. That also was the last time the Browns swept the intrastate series.
With Bengals fans more inclined to sell their tickets and go shopping instead, there likely will be a large contingent of Browns fans in the stands eager to celebrate a long-awaited moment.
That alone amounts to motivation.
"The main thing is: There is not going to be any celebration going on here in Cincinnati," offensive guard Bobbie Williams said. "There's a lot of pride in this locker room. No one comes in here and clinches that on our field, period, let alone Cleveland."
Asked if he would hate seeing the Browns celebrate, Pro Bowl receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh mused for a moment.
"Naw, they wouldn't do that," he said. "They're probably going to bring their little hats and their T-shirts. So hopefully they'll pack them up for another week."
These are two very different teams in the high-stakes rematch.
The Browns weren't sure where they were headed the first time they played. It seemed like only a matter of time before Quinn replaced Anderson at quarterback and the franchise began to retrench again.
Instead, Anderson shook off a slow start that day and led the Browns to one of their best showings in franchise history. Their 554 yards were third-most in team history. Anderson threw for 328 yards and five touchdowns, directing an offense that gained confidence with each score.
"It was huge," Anderson said. "We knew what we could do. We went out there and were successful on offense and did some good things. We picked it up when we needed to, scored and kind of gave guys confidence in what we were doing. It got us rolling a little bit."
It got the Bengals rolling toward their first losing season since 2002 and gave them a reference point as well.
"I think it kind of set the tone for both teams this season," Palmer said. "They had just lost at home to Pittsburgh badly, and they really kind of went on a run after us and got some confidence. Maybe we lost a little and we went downhill.
"They went uphill."