They played three seasons without a Browns team. They couldn’t kill off Browns passion with a mere grave injustice. So when the franchise came back in 1999, multitudes lined up to embrace it.

They played three seasons without a Browns team. They couldn’t kill off Browns passion with a mere grave injustice. So when the franchise came back in 1999, multitudes lined up to embrace it.

When the team languished, dangling like a caught-yesterday 6-foot catfish from a gaff hook, the embrace remained, albeit with grimace.

Now? Fresh air. Contention. What is a Browns fan to do with that?

The phenomenon was captured eloquently by one fan, Dave Cowden, in a correspondence this week. His Browns allegiance, dating to the 1960s, showed up last Sunday at the Meadowlands. Dave takes it from here:

“For surreal experience, nothing will ever come close to the Browns-Jets game for this fan. Nothing.

“The day started strangely, with so many Browns fans in attendance, occupying seats vacated by the Jets faithful who made the rational decision to stay home.

“The real weirdness began when the Browns seemingly had the game in hand, the hometown fans had left, and the torrential rains started.

“While my girlfriend retreated to shelter, I joined the handful of Brownies behind the team’s bench for the last few minutes. It seemed the game was being played out for 20 waterlogged loyalists.

“The glistening rain reflected lights from the helmets as we stared unbelievingly at the drama on the field. I swear we all said a prayer of thanks (atheists included) when Eric Mangini decided to kick a field goal on fourth-and-10 (rather than shoot for a go-ahead touchdown).

“The karma was such that there was no doubt the Jets would have found the end zone. Well, you know the rest.

“The surrealism continued as the scattered few traipsed through darkened, puddle-filled parking lots to shuttle buses that were seemingly miles from the stadium.

“Incredible. Memorable. Unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. And then home to the New Jersey suburbs through driving rain, thinking, is it crazy to fly to Cleveland for the last game of the year without a ticket?

“Yes, Virginia, maybe there is a Santa Claus.”

Head Coach Romeo Crennel’s jolly laugh is all the more robust these days. He gets it. He knows woebegone Browns fans are watching a playoff run with thrill and disbelief.

“I don’t know if you noticed or not,” Crennel said to an audience, “but there’s a big game this week. In Cleveland, as a matter of fact.”

The opponent is Buffalo, which hasn’t made the postseason since 1999, the year the Browns came back. There’s some sort of snowblind poetry here.

Catch one if you can

Be careful, the draft adage goes, about taking a wide receiver too high.

On the flip side, the December leaderboard seems to caution against passing on the right wideout when he does a curl pattern under your nose.

The receiving leaders through 13 games, with their draft status:

1. Terrell Owens, 1,270 yards, No. 89 overall, 1996 (49ers).

2. Randy Moss, 1,264 yards, No. 21, 1998 (Vikings).

3. Reggie Wayne, 1,211 yards, No. 30, 2001 (Colts).

4. Chad Johnson, 1,187 yards, No. 36, 2001 (Bengals).

5. Larry Fitzgerald, 1,139 yards, No. 3, 2004 (Cardinals).

6. Braylon Edwards, 1,106 yards, No. 3, 2005 (Browns).

7. Torry Holt, 1,034 yards, No. 6, 1999 (Rams).

8. Brandon Marshall, 1,029 yards, No. 119, 2006 (Broncos).

9. Roddy White, 995 yards, No. 27, 2005 (Falcons).

10. Joey Galloway, 978 yards, No. 8, 1995 (Seahawks).

(tie), Marques Colston, 978 yards, No. 252, 2006 (Saints).

OK, so Colston proves you might get lucky if you wait.

Consider that the teams with the three most prolific wideouts have the three best records. Cleveland is having its season of the decade because a wideout became a star. Do you want to take a chance on being without one?

The sixth sense

The NFL Combine measures everything except what’s inside a man. The Buffalo Bills tried to do that, too, with two projection picks.

Trent Edwards’ career at Stanford was more about what he couldn’t do. He couldn’t stay healthy. He couldn’t make the team win. His best year was 2005, when as a junior starter he was 5-6. Outside that year, his record was 5-14.

The Bills guessed he was a good player stuck on bad teams. His 5-1 record as a rookie NFL starter suggests they were right.

Far more stunning than Edwards, a Round 3 selection, was Ohio State safety Donte Whitner. Marv Levy might have had the only mock draft in America with Whitner in the top 20. The Bills grabbed him at No. 8. As a rookie, he looks like one of the top players on a rising team.

Head Coach Dick Jauron says the Bills relied on the inside scoop.

“Donte is really competitive and driven,” Jauron said. “He enjoys playing the game. That showed up on all of his college tapes.”

Football weather

In advance of the anticipated avalanche of points against Eric Mangini’s Jets, coaches of teams playing outdoor games in the North had to choose.

Practice inside and keep the guys safe but maybe too soft? Or venture out where the huskies go?

“We got a little work in the snow,” Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said of one practice. “It’s just part of the preparation for playing at this time of year.”

Snow was forecast for the Buffalo-Cleveland game. Crennel didn’t order an outside practice until Friday.

“Not like Florida,” linebacker Andra Davis said as he hit cold air, “but not bad.”

Staying hot

Cold hands haven’t stopped some receivers from coming up big in December.

The five with the most December TD catches since the start of the 2004 season: Lee Evans (Bills) 16, Marvin Harrison (Colts) 13, Drew Bennett (Titans-Rams) 12, Larry Fitzgerald (Cardinals) 10, Antonio Gates (Chargers) 10.

Is it cheating if you play in a dome or San Diego?

Extra points

- Belichick’s head coaching career has unfolded in snow country, Cleveland and Foxboro, but the coldest game he remembers was when worked for Bill Parcells in a 1985 Giants-Bears playoff game. “It’s always cold when you get beat 21-0,” he said.

- A release out of Buffalo says former Bills great Joe Cribbs is the father of Browns return whiz Joshua Cribbs. The latter says Joe Cribbs is his father’s first cousin.

- Steve Tasker, the ultimate special teamer in his Buffalo days in the 1990s, isn’t surprised Bills kick returner Terrence McGee is well below his career average. McGee has emerged as a No. 1 cornerback, Tasker says, forcing his focus away from taking kicks to the house (five in career).

Reach Repository sports writer Steve Doerschuk at (330) 580-8347 or e-mail steve.doerschuk@cantonrep.com