CLEVELAND (AP) — They are the NFL’s youngest offspring, one team reincarnated in 1999 and the other introduced three years later. And as with any kids, there have been developmental challenges along the way.
Crawling, falling and failing the past few seasons, the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans are up on their feet walking, running and winning.
The league’s expansion babies appear to have finally grown up.
And Sunday, the relative newcomers, who met in a forgettable New Year’s Eve season finale in 2006, will play for the fifth time since 2002, this time with AFC playoff implications on the line.
Imagine that. It’s November, and the Browns (6-4) and Texans (5-5) are smack dab in the middle of the playoff picture, even though players in both locker rooms are reluctant to talk about any game beyond the next one.
“Playoffs are a long way away,” Browns tight end Kellen Winslow said. “We have to play a lot better to get where we want to go. We’re 6-4 and we’re not the Patriots at 10-0 or whatever they are, so we have a lot of work to do. We really could be 8-2. We had some tough losses, some close ones that we thought we should’ve won, so we’re not happy around here.
“We’re striving for perfection, and that’s what we want to get.”
And that’s quite an ambitious goal for the renovated Browns, who lost 45 games the past four years.
Cleveland, which has made the postseason just once since 1999, is coming off an emotional — some would say lucky — overtime win at Baltimore last week. The Browns looked beaten when Phil Dawson’s 51-yard field goal at the end of regulation bounced off the left upright, banged into the crossbar and fell back onto the field.
But after first ruling the kick was no good, officials changed their call, giving Cleveland, a franchise tortured by last-second losses and heartbreak, an unforgettable victory.
Some are calling it The Immaculate Deflection.
“I’ve been on the other side of a few of those, so it’s nice to be on this side,” said Dawson, the lone Browns player who has been with the club since its ‘99 expansion rebirth. “That’s what you are judged by in this league — wins and losses. I think we all feel better even if it did take a crazy bounce. We won the game and we all feel better for it.”
The road to respectability has been a long one for the Browns.
They made the playoffs in 2002 under coach Butch Davis, who then gutted his team in a salary-cap purge before the ‘03 season, triggering a disastrous run of 5-11, 4-12, 6-10 and 4-12 seasons.
Coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Phil Savage spent their first two seasons in Cleveland overhauling a roster devoid of talent and instilling a we-will-win mentality in his players.
It has all taken time.
“We’ve made progress in changing the attitude, getting the right kind of guys here, doing things a certain way, that maybe in the past, they weren’t doing them that way,” Crennel said. “Now, I think that’s beginning to show in the won-loss record. Now, we’ve gotten players, which always helps. We’ve improved our offensive line. The quarterback is playing good.
“The defense is playing good, sometimes, so that allows us to win some games.”
Crennel, who won five Super Bowl rings as an assistant, says transforming an expansion franchise into one that wins consistently is a daunting challenge that many fans can’t appreciate.
“This is a microwave society we live in and everyone wants it done yesterday,” he said. “They don’t care that you’re a franchise team, they just want the team to win and they want to win right now.”
Plagued by injuries early on, Houston is finally getting healthy. With a 23-10 win last week over New Orleans, the Texans are at .500 later in a season than ever before. A win Sunday would give them their first unbeaten month in team history — they had a bye on Nov. 11 — as well as their first three-game winning streak in the same season.
Bigger, it would put them firmly in the chase for a wild-card berth.
Wide receiver Andre Johnson, who missed seven games with a knee injury, caught six passes for 120 yards, including a 73-yard TD reception, against the Saints. The two-time Pro Bowler’s return makes quarterback Matt Schaub’s job easier.
“He just brings a presence to our huddle and to our offense,” Schaub said. “It opens up our run game. It just changes the complexion of what we can do as well as it dictates the defense that they have to account for a playmaker of his caliber.”
Johnson, one of the game’s least-heralded superstars, feels it’s time the Texans shed the “expansion team” label for good.
“You’re only an expansion franchise for one year,” he said. “After that year is over, then you’re just like any other team. Normally, expansion franchises have to rebuild teams and that’s what we had to do, but that’s not no excuse for us.
“We played bad football at times and we lost games, but right now we’re playing pretty good and hopefully we can keep playing pretty good for these last six games. I think we’re headed in the right direction.”