Mark Duncan, Associated Press
Cleveland Browns running back Jamal Lewis, right, talks with linebacker Willie McGinest. After a surprising season last year, Cleveland feels it has a team that is ready to make noise in the NFL playoffs.

CLEVELAND — From a distance, the glowing orange billboard appears to be just another advertisement from a local company trying to lure customers.

But as you approach Cleveland Browns Stadium along the West Shoreway, which skirts the northern edge of downtown and Lake Erie's southern shores, the enormous sign delivers a jolting message stuffed with surprising optimism for this championship-deprived city.


Welcome to Cleveland, where the glass isn't half full or empty — it's usually shattered.

The Browns, though, coming off a surprising 10-6 season and with a high-powered offense capable of scoring on anyone from anywhere, have their fans in a frenzy.

A city that has only watched the previous 42 Super Bowls on TV and hasn't celebrated a major sports title since 1964 is dreaming of finally seeing its beloved team in the NFL's showcase event.

Or at least getting to the playoffs.

Optimism, a tough concept for many Clevelanders to grasp, is running rampant.

"It's great that everyone here is so fired up," center Hank Fraley said a few days after the Browns drew more than 25,000 to a practice at the stadium. "We still have to go out there and prove ourselves. We didn't do anything last year."

Oh, but they did. Although the Browns, who went just 10-22 in coach Romeo Crennel's first two seasons barely missed making the playoffs in his third, they awakened a proud franchise that had been dead for nearly a decade.

Since their expansion return in 1999, the Browns have made the postseason just once (2002) and have undergone endless turnover on their roster, coaching staff and in their front office. Toss in some horrendous draft picks, costly and freakish injuries and more than their share of gut-wrenching losses, and it's no wonder Cleveland had become an NFL wasteland.

"It's been rough around here," said kicker Phil Dawson, the lone player left from the Browns' 1999 rebirth.

Well, it appears the dark clouds have passed.

Not only are the Browns expected to compete for the AFC North title this season, many believe they can win the division.

Cleveland's hopes will hang on an offense that scored 402 points in its maiden voyage with pass-happy coordinator Rob Chudzinski last season. Quarterback Derek Anderson, handed the starting job in Week 2 after general manager Phil Savage traded Charlie Frye to Seattle following the Browns' 34-7 loss to Pittsburgh, emerged as a budding star and Pro Bowler.

Anderson threw 29 touchdown passes — 16 to wide receiver Braylon Edwards — and at least temporarily delayed any plans to turn the team over to second-year QB Brady Quinn. The former Notre Dame star spent all but one series standing on the sideline in 2007 and will likely be there again barring an injury — Anderson sustained a concussion in a preseason game against the New York Giants — or dramatic regression by the former backup.

While he doesn't possess Quinn's leadership qualities, Anderson has a rocket arm capable of launching 65-yard passes. It's the short ones he struggles with.

"He's like Randy Johnson throwing a football," said running back Jamal Lewis, who rushed for 1,304 yards last season behind Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas and Cleveland's superb line.

Anderson, too, is prone to force a pass into coverage now and again, but the 25-year-old appears to be coming into his own at the same time the Browns are coming into theirs. Anderson does have his critics, though, and his production tailed off late last season. A four-interception game in a loss at Cincinnati cost the Browns a playoff spot, and he threw for more than 200 yards once in the final four games.

But he's made only 18 career starts, and playing behind Cleveland's strong offensive line, there's reason to think he'll continue to improve. If not, it's the popular Quinn to the rescue.

The Browns' defense was a disaster last season, finishing No. 30 overall. The additions of massive nose tackle Shaun Rogers, conservatively listed at 350 pounds, as well as tackle Corey Williams will improve the D-line. It will also make it easier for linebacker Kamerion Wimbley to get to the quarterback.

"Everyone is excited that they're here," said linebacker Willie McGinest, who plans to retire following the season. "We know what they can do. They're very high-level players and should complement the guys that are already here."

Wimbley had 11 sacks as a rookie in 2006, but got just five last season as offenses learned his tendencies.

"Yeah, it could have been kind of predictable last year," he said. "But hopefully, I'll get some change-ups and we've got some new guys inside that we could definitely do more things with. There's more possibilities."

If Cleveland's defense can stay off the field, the Browns should score in bunches.

The trick will be navigating a killer schedule, which includes non-division games against Dallas, the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, Washington, Jacksonville, Denver, Indianapolis and Philadelphia.

Week 2 could be most important, though, when the Browns host the Steelers. Cleveland has lost nine straight and 15 of 16 against its bitter rival, a trend they need to reverse to win the AFC North.

McGinest didn't come back for a final season to fail. He's convinced they have the potential to make the postseason, and perhaps do even more.

"I think it's doable," he said. "We don't want to get ahead of ourselves. We don't want to be a team that's talking playoffs and all this and we come out and get our butts kicked. It's the one-game-at-a-time, one-week-at-a-time approach.

"Of course we have goals. We want to win our division. We want to go to the playoffs. Everybody knows that. But we're not going to be talking about all that stuff. Our goal is to beat Dallas on Sept. 7. Right now, that's it."

In Cleveland, that's saying a lot.