More than any other month, even April, August in the NFL is all about hope. A new season looms, and the possibilities seem endless, even for the downtrodden teams of the league who perennially pack it in and head home after Week 17 rather than play on into the postseason.
So don't tell the long-suffering football fans in Detroit and Cleveland that it's "only preseason.'' August matters for these folks. Some years it's all they've got. The Lions and Browns meet Friday night in Cleveland, and the bottom-line facts are one of these two laughable losers is going to exit Week 2 of the preseason 2-0, with even more reasons to believe in a team led by a young, on-the-rise quarterback.
For anybody anywhere, would dreaming a little playoff contention dream be sweeter than for the 2011 Lions and Browns, who represent exhibits 1 and 1A of football futility? You know it's been a while for these two clubs, but I bet you don't know exactly how long they've waited for a taste of real NFL success. Here's how long:
-- Detroit's last playoff berth was 1999, its last division title came in 1993, the same year it last enjoyed a home playoff game and a top-four seed in the NFC. As for the Lions' last postseason victory, that came in the 1991 divisional round, over Jimmy Johnson and the emerging Dallas Cowboys. Who knew Wayne Fontes would preside over the glory days in Detroit?
-- Cleveland's last playoff berth was 2002, but the Browns (either the old or the new version) haven't won their division since 1989, in the Bud Carson coaching era. Cleveland last earned a top-four seed and a home playoff game with an 11-5 wild-card berth in 1994, when Bill Belichick's Browns beat Bill Parcells' Patriots in an AFC first-round game at old Municipal Stadium.
Since those long-gone days, of course, there's been mostly misery and heartbreak in the fall. Cleveland got its new expansion franchise and a new stadium in 1999, but it's still waiting for a truly big game to be played there. Detroit bid goodbye to the depressing Silverdome and opened up Ford Field in 2002, but the Steelers' Super Bowl XL win over the Seahawks in early 2006 is the only game of any real significance to take place there.
But it's August now, and that means the NFC's Lions and the AFC's Browns are starting off with a clean slate, just like 30 other hopeful NFL teams. Last week, both clubs won at home, and did so impressively, with Detroit pounding the bejeebers out of lowly Cincinnati 34-3, and Cleveland showing no sense of inferiority against the defending Super Bowl champion Packers, 27-17. There's no reason to start selling playoff tickets just yet, but still.
Most importantly, the Lions and Browns got great first showings of the season from their quarterbacks, with both the oft-injured Matthew Stafford in Detroit and the surprisingly smooth Colt McCoy in Cleveland leading their offenses on a pair of early touchdown drives. Stafford, coming off last year's shoulder injury, made his first appearance since Week 9 of 2010 count for something. He played just 11 snaps, but threw two touchdown passes in the span of 1:42, completing 6 of 7 for 71 yards on the night, with a 148.5 passer rating.
If anything, McCoy was even better, completing 9 of his 10 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown, with a QB rating of 152.1 in his three series of work against Green Bay. It was a confidence-inspiring performance for the 2010 third-round pick, who was getting his first real shot at running new head coach Pat Shurmur's version of the West Coast offense. McCoy looked poised, comfortable and in command, three words not often used to describe the play of Cleveland quarterbacks. He looks ready to take the next step in his development as an NFL passer and leader, and the news that he traveled during the lockout to get tutored on the West Coast offense by Brett Favre only seemed to add to the positive buzz surrounding McCoy and his Browns.
Summer optimism aside, this is normally right around the portion of the story where I would caution Browns and Lions fans, reminding them that their playoff dreams are still miles and miles away from coming to fruition. After all, the Steelers and Ravens still reside in the AFC North with Cleveland, and the Packers and Bears remain formidable roadblocks for Detroit in the NFC North. Those are four 2010 playoff teams, and four very good reasons for a healthy dose of realism in Cleveland and Detroit.
But I say let the Lions and Browns dream. August may not matter much in every NFL market, but it does this year in Detroit and Cleveland. There's hope for these Lions and Browns, and for a change, it doesn't feel like false hope. It may only be the preseason, but after all those long years of losing and languishing, any winning start is a start worth noticing.
Here are the other Week 2 preseason games with storylines that interest/intrigue me....
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said he was stunned not to play last week against Jacksonville, and he'll probably want to fight Bill Belichick if he doesn't see some action Thursday night (or am I getting my recent AFC East QB-head coach subplots all mixed up?).
But forget about Brady, we know what he can do. It'll be much more compelling to watch Patriots reserve quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and rookie Ryan Mallett, who were both red-hot last week against the Jaguars. One more crisp showing from either of them, and Miami will be ready to offer New England anything short of J-Lo and Jimmy Buffett in trade for a young Patriots passer.
But you know how that one turned out: Green Bay outside linebacker Clay Matthews chased Kolb down from behind in the open field, knocked him out of the game, and opened the door for Michael Vick's renaissance season in Philadelphia. So indirectly, the Packers had as much to do with Kolb ending up in Arizona as anyone, and now they're coming after him again Friday night at Lambeau Field.
"It's weird how things work out,'' Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk told me this week. "Kevin started that game and then gets knocked out, with Michael Vick stepping in. Then look what happened. Vick plays great and he's in Philadelphia as the starter now, and Kevin winds up in Arizona, which seems like a great situation for him as well.''
Maybe. We don't really know yet, do we? All I really know is if I were Kolb, I'd keep a very close eye on Matthews every second I was on the field. Why tempt fate a second time?
The Colts treat the preseason like a necessary evil, and it shows. They're 4-24 in their past 28 exhibition games, and they play it so vanilla you should be able to put their performances on a waffle cone and enjoy it on the way home. But the Redskins will approach this one differently, and rightfully so. They're trying to get some mojo going this season, and last week's 16-7 home-field handling of Pittsburgh was a good first step. One AFC power vanquished, another one coming up?
Come to think of it, the Ravens haven't won a game since that conquest of the Chiefs, and they're going to be eager to erase the memory of last week's spotty opener at Philadelphia. Lee Evans should make his Baltimore debut at receiver, and quarterback Matt Cassel gets his first work of the preseason for Kansas City. The Chiefs could use an effective Cassel, because Tyler Palko and Ricky Stanzi didn't exactly tear it up in that shutout home loss to Tampa Bay.