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Browns Take Gloves Off Against Oilers : Pro football: Defense dominates in not-so-close 11-8 victory that moves surprising Cleveland to sparkling 5-1 start.


HOUSTON — They are as innovative as their helmets, as thrilling as their coach.

They have a color-blind quarterback who is famous for hitting receivers in the numbers. That is, the numbers on their backs.

They have an ancient running back whose claim to fame is the worst fumble in franchise history.

They have two former Pro Bowl linebackers who are making their first important tackles in eight years.

Their biggest and best defensive player will never have a catchy nickname like "the Refrigerator" . . . because he is the the Fridge's little brother.

But before Michael Dean Perry interrupts this story with one of those giant swats that filled television screens nationwide Thursday night, one more thing should be noted about the Cleveland Browns.

They have the second-best record in football after an 11-8 victory over the Houston Oilers at the Astrodome.

And if you don't think this 5-1 team is a legitimate AFC Super Bowl contender, then you haven't been watching a conference in which nobody rattles facemasks like this anymore.

"Sooner or later, people are going to start paying attention," said Cleveland cornerback Don Griffin after the Browns' fourth consecutive victory. "We're going to make them."

If they do, it will be with people like bland Coach Bill Belichick, erratic quarterback Vinny Testaverde, prehistoric running back Earnest Byner and former New York Giant linebackers Pepper Johnson and Carl Banks.

But it will mostly be because of team defense.

On Thursday the Browns came within 28 seconds of pitching their second shutout, nearly causing an Oiler team to leave the field scoreless for the first time in five years.

They have allowed only four touchdowns in their last four games and are allowing a league-low 11 points per game for the season.

But their most impressive statistic Thursday was two .

That is the number of gloves that nutso Brown fans--are there any other kind?--stole from rookie cornerback Issac Booth as he left the field.

Booth, who personally thwarted two fourth-quarter drives with an end-zone deflection and interception at the eight-yard line, made the mistake of sticking his hands in a makeshift end-zone "Dawg Pound" filled with Brown fans.

He has learned that with the team off to its best start since Jim Brown was playing--1965--the people in those pounds bite.

"I remember watching the Browns on TV as a kid, seeing how their fans were everywhere," said Booth, a fifth-round pick from California. "But I never believed it would be like this."

Now he knows how the defending Central Division champion Oilers felt as they fell to 1-5, their worst start since 1986.

"It hurts to watch," said Sean Jones, former Oiler defensive end who attended the game during a day off from the Green Bay Packers. "They destroyed a great team."

Depleted by injuries, salary cap and locker room dissension between the offense and defense, the Oilers started the game with 12 of the 22 players who started in their playoff game last season.

This group was harassed into two turnovers, five sacks, and just 183 yards until the final period.

"Some of their people played the game with one eye on the ball and one eye looking at who is going to hit them," said Eric Turner, Brown safety and former UCLA star who is having a Pro Bowl-type season. "You might say we intimidated them a little bit."

This defense is so good, it intimidates the offense, which accumulated 193 yards and the touchdown on a 25-yard pass from Testaverde to Mark Carrier in the first half.

And then shut down. The Browns gained only 67 yards in the second half.

"We know we're going to get the ball in good field position from our defense, and we know we had better capitalize," said Testaverde, who threw two more interceptions to give him a league-leading 10.

Winning the games they are supposed to win with a third-place schedule, the Browns could finish the season at 11-5. And if they gain home-field advantage for the wintry postseason?

Well, it all depends on whether they have any gloves left.

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