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Cleveland's erratic defense shut down a high-powered Cincinnati attack to take the AFC Central title

Cleveland nosetackle Bob Golic was relaxing Saturday night in the lobby of the Westin hotel in Cincinnati, enjoying the Christmas lights and the overall feeling of peace and goodwill—and pondering a question totally out of sync with the holiday mood: Why is the Browns" defense so crummy?

Golic, a Pro Bowler last season, remained cheerful. "We know we're not a great defense, but we have shown greatness," he said. Well, maybe a little greatness if your definition of the word is not too grand—and Golic's is not. He pointed to two of Cleveland's recent triumphs: 26-16 over Miami and 13-10 over Houston. In fact, going into Sunday's game with Cincinnati to possibly determine the winner of the AFC Central Division, the defense that Golic claimed had shown greatness was ranked 19th in the NFL.

Come on, these are the guys who gave up 41 points to the Bears on opening day, 30 to the Bengals two weeks later and, no smirking, 17 to Green Bay in October. Defense to this crowd is something that keeps the cows from wandering off. If it hadn't been for Bernie Kosar and the offense, the Browns might have had to drop out of the league because of acute embarrassment.

Golic had no reason to be so chipper on the eve of the game against the Bengals, the NFL's No. 1 offensive team. If the Steelers' Mark Malone could light up the Browns for 31 on Nov. 23, think what Cincy's Boomer Esiason could do. "O.K.," says Golic, "I still say you can't put a label on us. At times we're good, a few times great and sometimes poor. But Marty [Schottenheimer, the Browns coach] tells us that we are tough because we have been tempered by heat and pressure." Fine, Bob. Good night. Sleep tough.

Naturally, the next afternoon the Browns' defense went out and played at a level approaching all-globe. In a perfectly brilliant display of defense—not only with body and head but with heart—Cleveland shut down Cincinnati 34-3. Bengal quarterback Esiason, an emerging star who thinks of a scoring position as anywhere inside the stadium (or outside if there is no wind) went a depressing 14 of 31 for the afternoon, 151 yards, no TDs and two interceptions. And he admitted what is obvious to Bengalphiles in Cincy's erratic 9-6 season: "You never know which team is going to show up for us."

On Sunday it was—and there is no tactful way to say it—the awful one. Maybe the Bengals were so bad because
the Browns are Super Bowl quality, a notion that requires a quantum leap in logic, not to mention the assumption that the Cleveland defense won't revert to form.

But let us not flippantly dismiss the Browns. For while most of pro football is talking about the Giants, the Bears and the Broncos, the Browns have been quietly winning seven of their last eight. Schottenheimer, savoring Sunday's victory with a soft drink and a cigarette in the bowels of Riverfront Stadium, said, "I sure wouldn't want to say we have peaked."

If true, that's real depressing news for the rest of the league because the Browns have hung up an 11-4 mark this season. And they have done it mostly without Earnest Byner, a classy running back who was lost to the Browns on Oct. 19 with a broken ankle; they have done a lot of it without fullback Kevin Mack, who has been fighting a lingering shoulder injury that has kept him out of four games and below par all year; they have done it while their star tight end, Ozzie New-some, is going through his worst year as a pro, thanks to injuries; they have done it lately without field goal kicker Matt Bahr, out for the year with torn knee ligaments. Not to mention the loss of free safety Don Rogers, killed by cocaine last summer, and the release of the popular linebacker Tom Cousineau.

On top of all that, the Browns have survived with an offensive line that includes Paul Farren, a 12th-round draft pick, and two 10th rounders, Larry Williams and Dan Fike, originally a Jets draft choice. It's possible you weren't talking about any of these guys at breakfast this morning. What has happened to Cleveland is that the patient Schottenheimer has these players—and the whole team—thinking they are good. On Sunday they proved it.

The game's pattern was cast in bronze on the Browns' first play from scrimmage: Kosar took the snap on his own 32, dropped back and hit wide receiver Reggie Langhorne for a 66-yard completion down to the Bengal two. It was a brand-new play, practiced only six times this week, in which the inside receiver took a deep route instead of running a hook.

That play established how good Kosar & Co. can be. On the next play, Mack flew up the middle, fumbled straight up, oh, maybe six or seven stories, after which the ball somehow returned to earth and the protective custody of Fike. Two plays later, Mack made the TD. This established how lucky the Browns can be. Another illustration: In the third quarter, Cleveland running back Curtis Dickey started crashing toward the goal, fumbled, and the ball bounced crazily into the end zone—smack into the hands of Browns wide receiver Webster Slaughter.

The Bengals, meanwhile, were having a horrible afternoon. Take the punting game. A 33-yarder in the first quarter by beleaguered Jeff Hayes gave the Browns the ball near midfield. After Dickey picked up nine yards, Kosar threw a 47-yard TD pass to Slaughter. A 20-yard punt with 1:55 left in the first half set up a field goal by Mark Moseley—the Browns signed him to replace Bahr—from 39 yards, and an 18-yard punt in the third quarter led to Slaughter's fumble recovery for the TD. Hayes averaged just 27.3 yards on seven punts.

Anyway, Cincy never had a chance. Cleveland, with its newfound defense, smote the Bengals, primarily because of Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield, two of the orneriest, cockiest, brashest—and don't forget best—cornerbacks in the league. Schottenheimer says he wouldn't trade them for any pair in the NFL. Every time there's action these two guys are apt to be part of it. On Sunday Minnifield put a key hit on the Bengals' leading rusher, James Brooks. Dixon had an interception and broke up four passes.

There's more to such stellar defense, says Dixon, than dealing out physical abuse. And he has the evidence. At his condo is a filing cabinet filled with manila folders. They contain information on opposing receivers and backs and their playing habits. These folders get constant attention. So, too, do the videotapes of rival teams he brings with him on trips, with special emphasis on how the teams work when they are within 15 yards of the goal. As self-assured as he is studious, Dixon says, "We're good. We're just winning without style."

No matter how the 11-4 season has been achieved, it sure does look pretty with that big Brown ribbon around it.



The Browns got lucky: Mack (34) fumbled, but two plays later he scored.