QB comparison inevitable as Browns ready for Pats


CLEVELAND -- At 4 a.m. today in Cleveland, while friends are still out celebrating the last night of the year, Vince Erwin will punch a clock at a salt factory.

For seven hours he'll load coal into a hopper. It will be hot and filthy, and the only thing between him and madness will be the plugs in his ears.

Then around 11, Erwin will punch out and drive an hour to Cleveland Stadium. There he will engage in some really hard labor -- watching the Cleveland Browns face the New England Patriots in an AFC first-round playoff game as one of the leaders of the renowned end-zone "Dawg Pound."

But like many other Clevelanders these days, he also will be shaking his head and muttering under his breath.

Not that the Patriots have a good chance to upset the Browns, but even "D. Dawg" is worried.

"Everybody around here is really cautious about this," said Erwin, who has cheered from his Section 61 end-zone seat for 16 years. "And it's all because of the quarterback."

He can't mean that even though the Browns finished with their best record since 1986 (11-5) and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1989, people still think Bernie Kosar should be standing under center?

Erwin is glad you asked.

"We have gone from Kosar to a man [Vinny Testaverde] who hasn't shown us anything," said Erwin, 36. "Vinny can't do things that high school quarterbacks can do. He telegraphs his passes. He has trouble hitting guys out of the backfield. He can't seem to put two good games back-to-back."

If serious Brown fans are saying those things about their quarterback, you might think, what must New England fans be saying about Drew Bledsoe?

The last time New England played in Cleveland -- a 13-6 Browns victory in November -- Bledsoe threw four interceptions. That game was one of only three this season in which he did not throw a scoring pass.

PTC Bledsoe threw for fewer yards per attempt and for fewer touchdowns per attempt than Testaverde, and led the league in interceptions with 27.

Bledsoe's quarterback rating of 73.6 was not quite three points higher than Testaverde's. And Bledsoe led his team to one fewer victory than Testaverde.

Yet on the basis of a record 691 passes and a near-record 400 completions, Bledsoe is on the road to Canton. Bledsoe is loved.

So this battle of perceptions will dominate today's game between teams that are as unproven as their quarterbacks.

Many think that the Patriots, football's hottest team, will win because of Bledsoe.

And that the Browns, football's old-fashioned team, will lose because of Testaverde.

Not so fast, warns Patriots coach Bill Parcells.

"I don't think their personnel should be questioned too much," he said of the Browns. "You don't win 11 games in this league by accident."

Bill Belichick, defensive coordinator for Parcells during the Giants' two NFL championship seasons, has done it with a strong running game, an athletic and smart secondary and perhaps the league's best special teams.

Just as Parcells used to do it.

Only this year, Parcells has done it differently.

Where Belichick will give the ball to Leroy Hoard, Parcells will order Bledsoe to throw a 4-yard pass to Leroy Thompson.

Where Belichick will rarely blitz, Parcells will send in linebackers Willie McGinest and Chris Slade on nearly every down.

Where Belichick will take no chances, Parcells has tried a league-leading 35 fourth-down conversion plays.

Nobody in the league has allowed fewer points than the Browns (204). Yet only seven teams have scored more than the Patriots (351).

The Patriots are far more exciting, having finished the regular season with seven consecutive victories, including their recent efforts in Buffalo and Chicago.

But the Browns are more experienced, comfortable and confident.

"For us to put in the run-and-shoot this week because they haven't seen it, I don't think that would be very effective for us," Belichick said dryly. "My job is to win. I'm not really worried about popularity contests."

No matter what happens, it should be a howling good time.

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