CLEVELAND – Dressed in a gray herringbone suit, a lavender dress shirt, a black tie accented with a lavender paisley design and a sweet pair of shades, wide receiver Braylon Edwards may not appear to fit the working-class style of Cleveland.
Don't let looks deceive. Edwards is the perfect accent to an offense that is humming along nicely. And underneath the fashionable appearance, Edwards had the scars from a rough-but-successful workday.
His right forearm was bandaged to above the elbow and it hurt him to merely shake hands after a pair of tough catches on slant patterns, one that converted a critical fourth down late in the first half and the other a third-down reception in the second half of a 27-17 Cleveland Browns victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday.
"Those slant patterns, a lot of time they're not going to be fun, but you might as well catch it if you know you're going to get hit," said Edwards, who is quickly becoming the greatest receiver in the franchise's storied history.
After two years of physical and emotional frustration, Edwards is rising nearly as fast as Cleveland is turning itself into a contender. After dispatching Houston, the Browns (7-4) are in clear control of their playoff destiny. None of Cleveland's final five opponents has a winning record.
Moreover, in any normal NFL season – when one team was not so willing and able to go undefeated while dissecting opponents the way a high school biology class goes through earthworms – the upstart Browns might be considered a darkhorse title contender.
Maybe that sounds absurd. After all, this is a team that was 19-45 over the previous four seasons. Last year at this time, Edwards was playing the role of petulant child, screaming at teammates during games and arguing with former starting quarterback Charlie Frye at the team facility.
Now, he's one cog in an offensive machine. Edwards' four catches for 57 yards and a touchdown Sunday fell somewhere behind tight end Kellen Winslow (10 catches, 107 yards, one touchdown), running back Jamal Lewis (29 carries, 134 yards, one score) and quarterback Derek Anderson (24 of 35, 253 yards, two TD passes and one interception).
But where Winslow and Lewis dominated the middle of the field, it was Edwards who kept the Houston defense honest. His touchdown, a 19-yard reception which came after he froze the cornerback with a beautiful stutter step, was his 11th of the season. That's two short of the franchise record of 13 set by Gary Collins in 1963.
More important, it tied the score 7-7 when there was still plenty of doubt. As complete as the Browns' victory was, there were moments early on when Houston could have assumed control. Five of the first six drives by the Texans ended in Cleveland territory but produced only 10 points.
That allowed Cleveland to take the lead just before halftime on Winslow's touchdown catch. Edwards helped set up that score with an 8-yard catch on fourth-and-2 from the Houston 32-yard line. Edwards ran one of his two slants right into the teeth of the defense.
A key to Edwards' success is that he isn't concerned about much beyond his job. During the offseason, coach Romeo Crennel stressed to Edwards time and again to focus on the task at hand, and that everything else would work out.
"Braylon is a kid who has so much going on off the field that sometimes I think he lost sight of that you just have to focus on the job first," Crennel said in June.
Edwards, the No. 3 overall pick in 2005, has narrowed that message even more. Unlike a year ago, when frequent mistakes by others around him led to frustration, Edwards doesn't even think about anything else.
"Yeah, to some extent, the biggest thing for me was that I needed to focus on Braylon on the field and stop worrying about what what's going on with other parts of the team," said Edwards, who during one in-game flare up ripped the offensive line for missing assignments. "Instead of me worrying about that other stuff, I needed to realize that if I just run my routes and I do what I'm supposed to do, everybody else will do their job."
Of course, it's helpful that other people around him are competent, if not great. From Winslow to Lewis to an offensive line bolstered by this year's No. 3 overall pick Joe Thomas at left tackle, the Browns now have a collection of standout players who are playing like standouts.
In turn, that makes someone like Edwards pick up his game.
"Braylon is a guy with so much potential who is trying to be so great, but sometimes you need great players around you to help pull that potential out of you, make you learn how to play up to it," Lewis said. "I had that kind of experience in college. I had a coach, David Cutcliffe (at Tennessee), who said to me that I needed to learn how to practice to get ready for games.
"He told me to watch No. 16, which was Peyton Manning. I saw how hard he would go in practice every day. I learned that's how you have to prepare. Now, I think Braylon had to see some other guys work like that around him to make him understand that's how he needs to work. Braylon wants to be great, you can see it. But sometimes you need to see how to do it."
However it has happened for Edwards and the Browns, they are collectively becoming one of the most consistent offenses in the NFL. The win marked their sixth straight game with at least 27 points. Overall, they have been held to fewer than 24 points only twice this season, including the season-opening disaster against Pittsburgh that led to Frye being traded and Anderson taking over.
While the ascension of Anderson is one of the charming stories of this NFL season, it's players such as Edwards, Winslow, Lewis and the offensive line who set the stage.
And, at least in Edwards' case, do a pretty good job with wardrobe as well.