At long last, fans can say their Browns are back

By M.R. KROPKO, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - Fans celebrating the Cleveland Browns' win after the game Sunday kept their eyes on NFL playoff pairings flashing on television screens. By Sunday night, they had two
reasons to celebrate.

The Browns were reborn as a woeful expansion team after Cleveland went three years without them. Now, in their fourth season, the Browns are in the playoffs for the first time since 1994.

"Regardless of whether they win or lose, they're moving forward, and they are no longer an expansion team," said Andrew Joyce, 33, who moved to the Cleveland area three years ago from
Australia and quickly learned Browns history from his wife's family.

The Browns temporarily disappeared from Cleveland after the 1995 season when former owner Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore.

Joyce was one of many fans who went to the game, then celebrated the Browns' 24-16 win over Atlanta at The Flats, a downtown restaurant and entertainment district.

"They can stand on their own two feet. No matter what happened with Art Modell, we are here and we can take a hit. They are our Cleveland Browns and a force to be reckoned with," Joyce said.

At Buffalo Wild Wings, customers cheered at big-screen televisions for the New York Jets to beat Green Bay, the final detail needed to qualify the Browns for the playoffs.

"The people here were all chanting J-E-T-S," said Chris Mueller, 36, of Cleveland.

The Jets won. And the Browns are back.

"It's great to be back in the playoffs. They deserve it. They had so many close games this year, and they didn't catch a lot of breaks," Mueller said.

The fact that Cleveland sort of sneaked into the playoffs doesn't matter to Mueller.

"I think they have as good a chance as anybody," he said.

But during the game, he wasn't so sure.

"The mood at the game was that you are so used to getting your heart broken in Cleveland, until the last second you never knew," he said.

Cleveland will play rival Pittsburgh in the first round.

Perhaps the most famous Browns fan of all is John "Big Dawg" Thompson, a rotund, dog-masked fixture in Browns Stadium's east end zone section known as the Dawg Pound.

"Everything that's gone down the last seven, eight years, it was so nice to see the stadium rocking today. It really felt like old times," he said.

Thompson, who testified before Congress about the team's move out of Cleveland and is enshrined in the fan section of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said he wasn't sure if the dual victories had sunk in.

"It's what we've been waiting for. It's really hard to believe considering the up and down situations we've had all year, but what a way to get in," he said.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)