CLEVELAND - For the last nine years, the NFL's most resilient fans have made their way from the gravel parking lots and through the downtown streets toward the lakefront stadium, an uninspiring glass-and-steel structure built on taxes for their sins.
They've come because they always have.
Many of the dedicated dress in white, brown and even hideously ugly orange jerseys that bear the names of Browns players past and present, numerical reminders of Cleveland's glory days - and darkest ones.
As kickoff nears, the tents are folded, the tailgates closed, and the No. 32 Jim Browns, No. 19 Bernie Kosars and No. 17 Braylon Edwardses march shoulder to shoulder up West 3rd Street with No. 2 Tim Couchs, No. 92 Courtney Browns and No. 31 William Greens.
Throw in a few guys who still wear dog masks, and it's an odd mix, but a united one - as always.
Until recently, the pilgrimage was mostly a painful one.
But now, this faithful congregation, an extended football family connected by a deep passion for football, is celebrating a season few expected. One that could continue into the new year.
Sundays are about revival along the shores of Lake Erie as Cleveland, city of heartbreak and home of nary a single major pro sports championship for 43 years, rocks once more.
The Browns are back.
Beleaguered, beaten and downright brutal since their expansion reincarnation in 1999, the Browns are no longer the punchline of some never-ending joke. Along the way, Cleveland has been transformed into a magical place.
Believeland, they're calling it.
With the possible exceptions of New England's pursuit of perfection and Brett Favre's defiant stiff arm of Father Time, the Browns (9-5) are the league's warm-and-fuzzy story of 2007.
They were picked to do nothing, these Brownies. A turnaround wasn't supposed to happen this quickly. Sure, their talent had gotten better, and with another solid draft class and free-agent shopping spree, they figured to be competitive at some point in the future.
Before the season kicked off, third-year coach Romeo Crennel's seat was so hot Las Vegas bookies were laying odds that by the club's bye week he would be bye-bye. It only got worse following a 34-7 loss to Pittsburgh in the home opener, a here-we-go-again defeat that seemed to be the final straw for die-hard Cleveland fans.
But one week later, it all changed. Quarterback Charlie Frye was traded and the Browns handed the ball to backup Derek Anderson, a goofy, big-footed, rocket-armed quarterback from the tiny outpost of Scappoose, Ore. In his first game, Anderson threw five touchdown passes in a 51-45 win over Cincinnati and became an overnight sensation.
Since then, the Browns, seemingly cursed in years past, have finally seen the ball bounce their way. They're winning the close games they usually lost, and a woe-is-us mentality that hung over Cleveland like a circling storm cloud has finally lifted.
Last Sunday, in blowing snow and near whiteout conditions, the Browns beat Buffalo 8-0 to improve to 6-1 at home and move into a tie for first place with the Steelers in the AFC North. More importantly, they moved within one win of a playoff berth, something they can lock up this week in Cincinnati.
"Nobody believed in us," said Edwards, who was voted to the Pro Bowl along with return man extraordinaire Josh Cribbs. "Nobody gave us a shot, nobody said we were anything. Everybody said we were the same old Browns. I think they had us winning three games.
"It means that we proved it to the world. We're not through, by no means. It means we stuck together when nobody else believed in us. We came together and said, 'It's us. The heck what everybody else says. We're going to do it for us.' "
And that's what they've done.
Cleveland's locker room, often divided during years of upheaval, is unified like never before. It's loaded with high-character players hand-picked by general manager Phil Savage and Crennel, one of the front-runners for coach of the year after orchestrating this improbable reversal of fortunes.
On a typical weekday, players mingle around the room during the time it's open to the media. There are no fires burning like last season, when Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow seemed to take turns fighting for the spotlight or saying something they'd regret. There are no hidden agendas, either, just guys doing their jobs and having fun doing them.
For that, Crennel deserves much of the credit.
New England's former defensive coordinator insists he's the same man as when the Browns hired him in February 2005, right after he won a third Super Bowl title with the Patriots. Outwardly, he's the same: friendly, laid back and confident. No one knows what effect 6-10 and 4-12 seasons had on him.
But Crennel, who owns five Super Bowl rings, has been Cleveland's rock.
"I get to see a side of Romeo most people don't," Savage said. "He's very steady. He's very consistent. He's reliable. He's dependable. He's been a great example to the team. Just knowing that if you show up for work every day and do what you're supposed to do, you can be successful. Romeo is the same today as he was last year when we were 4-10, pretty much.
"But he's happier. All of us are happier."
Joy spread quickly after the final seconds ticked off in Sunday's win. Browns fans, who huddled together for three hours like penguins in the Antarctic fighting off the cold, celebrating by pelting each other with snowballs in the stands before heading home.
Down on the field, Anderson sprinted through the snow and did a headfirst dive into the powder.
"I felt like a kid out there," he said.
These days, everyone in Cleveland does.41.50436 -81.69046