Rollercoaster ride has Browns on the cusp

Gordon and Cameron

Gordon and Cameron

Why not them? Why not now?

Decades ago, former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle badly sought out and used a word that has become part of our regular vernacular – parity. He wanted it for his league. He needed it. Now, the late, great former commissioner would be loving that the NFL has turned into exactly what he wanted it to be. Anyone who doesn’t believe this to be true only needs to look at the current AFC Wild Card standings.

The top six teams in each conference get in. Right now the sixth spot is being held by the 5-4 New York Jets. This is a team that got destroyed 49-9 in Cincinnati three weeks ago and has traded wins and losses each week this season. Chasing them are five teams one game back at 4-5 heading into last night: Miami, Tennessee, Baltimore, San Diego, and Cleveland. Oakland and Pittsburgh are 3-6 and right there as well.  That means 13 of the 16 AFC teams are within two games of a playoff spot.

Meanwhile, your Cleveland Browns are right there in the thick of it. While they were sitting back and relaxing last Sunday on their bye week, every single team they needed to lose lost, except for Baltimore, who did the Browns a big favor by knocking off division leading Cincinnati. It was the perfect storm, which brings us to this week.

While the rest of the league may not have taken notice, Sunday’s game in Southern Ohio has huge implications for AFC North supremacy. The 4-5 Browns trail the 6-4 Bengals by one game in the loss column with a head to head matchup right there in front of them.

If I would have told you after that Opening Day debacle loss to Miami that in Week 11 the Browns would be playing a game for essentially a shot at first place in the division, would you have believed me? I would have laughed at myself for even making the suggestion.

Think about what this team has gone through from September 8th to today.

Miami spanked them in the opener under Brandon Weeden, who we were told looked much more comfortable in an offense geared to his strengths, looking no different and an offensive line that looked completely overmatched (anyone else miss the Oneil Cousins experience?). Next they traveled to Baltimore to take on the defending Super Bowl Champions in their home opener where they raised another banner. Once again, the offense looked comically inept in a 14-6 loss where Jason Campbell had to step on the field for the final series of the game, needing to go the length of the field to tie the game with no timeouts.

As if things didn’t look bad enough on the field, Weeden was going to be lost for a few weeks with a thumb injury (which wasn’t viewed as such a bad thing) as the team was heading to Minnesota. GM Mike Lombardi’s favorite QB, Brian Hoyer, who had been third string since coming over in May, jumped Campbell on the depth chart and was given his second career start. Then completely out of the blue that same week, RB Trent Richardson, one of the more popular players with the fan base, was traded to Indianapolis for a 2014 first round pick. He was replaced on the roster by 32-year old Willis McGahee. Fans and media types were aghast. “The Browns are tanking the season” was a popular take both locally and nationally. Despite all of the talk, there was a game to play that Sunday against the Vikings.

Everyone outside of that Browns locker room predicted they would get blown out by Adrian Peterson and company. Instead Hoyer and the Jordan Cameron/Josh Gordon duo sparked the offense to heights we didn’t think were possible. On a Hoyer to Cameron TD pass with 51 seconds left, the Browns pulled off the upset and the St. Ignatius grad instantly become a hero. Nobody loves the “local boy makes good” story quite like Clevelanders and a week later, making his first home start, Hoyer and a rock solid defense beat down the division leading Bengals 17-6. At 2-2, people here started to believe. A national TV game with the Buffalo Bills game was next and the excitement of “Hoyer Mania” was growing in Cleveland. Could we possibly have the answer at QB or at least a competent future backup? One thing was for sure – we were all excited to see what these young Browns with a staunch defense and the Hoyer-led offense could do.

All of that excitement quickly went down the drain the first quarter against the Bills when Hoyer slid to the ground and stayed down, holding his knee. Just like that, Weeden was back in and we would soon learn that Hoyer’s season would be over with a torn ACL. The 2012 first round pick came on in relief and led the Browns to a third straight win, 37-24, which was aided by a Travis Benjamin punt return for a TD and a game-sealing pick six by T.J. Ward. While he threw for 197 yards in three quarters and made some big plays, Weeden was still sacked five times. Now winners of three straight, Cleveland was Believeland once again. Unfortunately, the real Brandon Weeden was about to reappear.

Weeden was awful in losses to Detroit (31-17) and Green Bay (31-13) with the capper being his horrific underhand toss interception which killed any chance of a Browns comeback against the Lions. It was clear that a change had to be made. Weeden had become Chris Perez, an extremely unpopular figure who just could not come back out on the field in home games.  They were 3-4 with nothing to lose, so coach Rob Chudzinski was given no choice but to turn the offense over to Campbell, who nobody thought was worthy of being starter again and had already been passed over once. The last time we saw Campbell start was last season for the Bears where the 49ers turned him into a piñata on a Monday night. It was not exactly the kind of game tape that Campbell would want on his resume. But nevertheless, the sentiment in Cleveland was “he couldn’t possibly be any worse than Weeden.”

All Campbell was asked to do was beat the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs on the road with no running game to speak of. Most of the first half was a bleep show to say the least. The first three series under Campbell were all three and outs. But something clicked after Campbell hit Josh Gordon on a well executed flea flicker late in the second quarter. The Browns battled back and were in the game all the way until the end. Afterwards we would learned that Chud’s impassioned halftime speech fired up his team. He pulled no punches and called his players out. They responded and would later praise him for it. There was no shame in losing 23-17 at Arrowhead and the second half play of Campbell was very encouraging. As we had seen with Hoyer under center, the offense moved the ball thanks to the quick release and pocket presence of Campbell, who used his legs to avoid pressure. Campbell’s play was the truest indictment of Weeden’s abilities, or should we say lack there of.

The veteran Campbell has taken control of the Norv Turner led offense and has been efficient, which is all you can ask out of him. He is not making the killer mistakes and the Browns in turn played their most inspired and complete game since the Bengals win in Week Four in beating divisional rival Baltimore two weeks ago. The defense again was superb and is continuing to get better. Chudzinski coached perhaps the best game of his young career in the Baltimore win, going for it twice on fourth down in instances where he predecessor (I refuse even mention his name, what a horrific hire that was) wouldn’t have. The 24-18 W left the fans thirsting for more and heading into the bye week on a high note.

So here we are. Two days away from a monster showdown with the Bengals, an extremely vulnerable team the Browns have already beaten. Their best pass rusher, Geno Atkins, has been lost for the season. Their offense has been stagnant of late and QB Andy Dalton has regressed. While Cincinnati is a much different team at home, they are ripe for the picking. The Browns can win this game folks. This is not me drinking the Kool Aid here. With the defense playing the way it has and an offense not making the mistakes that were made under Weeden, there is no reason to doubt them. They are a confident bunch.

Think about how far they have come. Think about what they have already been through this season. Trades. Injuries. Major roster change. It is amazing to see where they are now. While the Ray Horton-led defense has come as advertised, we expected Norv’s offense to revolve around the big arm of Weeden and the legs of Richardson with a little Gordon mixed in. Fast forward to today and Chud is on QB number three with a running back by committee rotation that has seen McGahee, Chris Ogbannaya, Bobby Rainey, and now Fozzy Whittaker all taking their shots. Gordon and Cameron are big play guys that defenses must game plan for. Things are starting to come together and the best part about this – it is not too late.

A win in Cincinnati Sunday could catapult the Browns towards not just a Wild Card spot, but to a possible AFC North crown. I know, I shouldn’t get ahead of myself here, but tell me why this can’t happen? It is not like the Bengals are world beaters. The Ravens and the Steelers have both looked old declining teams heading in the opposite direction while the Browns are a team on the come.

Sunday plays a huge role in the Browns direction for the rest of the season. The remaining schedule is favorable, save for a road game in New England on December 8th. But again, a win Sunday would be gigantic and could set the tone for a strong stretch run.

Why not them? Why not now?

Think big Browns fans. This can happen.

(photo via Pioneer Press: Sherri LaRose-Chiglo)

  • bossman09

    The honest tag line really isn’t “the browns could do it” which I guess they theoretically could do – It should be “the browns are actually improving”. for the first time since maybe 1993, the browns are not only playing real football, but they are also doing it with a young, talented, and below cap team. Unlike 2002, we are not averaging mid 30s, and we are not busting the cap so we can actually get better next year. We have legit lines, legit receivers, a legit corner and a few other strong pieces. Instead of hoping for a 1 year wonder, we may actually be in the promise land of winning multiple seasons in a row. That should be the real story – but we appreciate the recap of the AFC standings.

  • Natedawg86

    So… I know a little early, but assuming a TIE for North
    If CLE beats CIN:
    CLE takes tiebreaker because 2-0 against CIN.
    CLE and BAL if tied with in div record, it would go to common opponents. We have 9 common outside div. Browns are 2-4, Ravens are 1-3.

    If we do not beat CIN, Cin has a 5-2 record so far against common opp, and worst they could do is lose vs DEN and Minn and go 5-4, meaning CLE would have to beat CHI, NYJ and NE to tie, in which it would go to best record in conference. Our extra game would have been KC (L) and CIN would be San Diego (Week 13).
    Basically, if we beat CIN, we are in the drivers seat for Div.

  • mgbode

    Tenn is no longer 4-5 (thank you Indy)

    Atkins, Hall out. Still & Thompson on injured list. If those guys are limited, then their DT situation is in shambles. They still have great DEs of course (Dunlap & Johnson).

    I want to see us take advantage of their LBers. They have big, strong, intimidating LBers. Who happen to over-react to fakes and aren’t very fast. We should be able to devise a couple big plays off of them.

    Gordon might have a big, big game. Is it going to be PacMan or Newmann on him? I don’t think either can contain him. Iloka has been a good bracket-S, so they could use him there, but then Cameron should be able to take advantage of those slower LBers.

    ———————————–

    other side, we all care about Haden vs. AJ. always a good battle. but, Skrine vs. Marvin Jones might decide this one.

    I think we can contain their running game. Their OL is much like ours in that they can pass protect better than drive-block on runs. They have good TEs and Gio can catch. That has been an issue for us this season, so we’ll have to watch out for it. But, those passes have also been getting Dalton into trouble lately.

    And, that is the big part of this game. Outside of the Ravens bailing Dalton out by popping the ball up on a Hail Mary, Dalton has been wretched the last 2 games. We need to keep that pressure on as his confidence cannot be too high right now. Let’s make sure we keep him thinking that his season is falling apart. If we do that and get better pressure than the 1st time we faced them, I think we can control this game. That’s right, not just win, but control. That’s the hard part though because their OL is a good pass blocking line.

  • mgbode

    Friday before the biggest Cleveland Browns game in at least 6 years and this will be the 4th comment in the thread. I find it hilarious that if the Browns were struggling we’d likely be over 100 comments by now complaining :)

  • Jack

    Tempting fate, no?

  • Harv 21

    Believe key to our Cincy win was Andy Dalton’s inexplicable failure to target his wide open athletic tight ends. Looked like he was just hell bent on feeding A.J. Green and other wideouts the ball, coverage be damned.

    The weather forecast in Cincy is warm but storming and windy. Good tight end weather. My prediction: first QB to rely on his sure-handed tight ends wins.

  • BuckeyeDawg

    I’m a little perplexed by the low comments too, but I think we know why. I think everyone is waiting to see if this is for real. Call it a collective “breath holding” if you will. We’ve all gotten excited and sucked in, just to be let down so many times. You know the drill.

    I’m kind of there myself. I’m totally stoked for this game, and I still think we have decent playoff chances even if we lose. But if we win this game, the division is ours for the taking. Playoffs will go from being a pipe dream to an expectation. I’ll be ready to go all “Jake Taylor” on this team. (I guess there’s only one thing left to do…win the whole ******* thing.” Denver is the elephant in the room, but nobody else in the AFC scares me. I’m waiting for the signature win to prove this isn’t fool’s gold before I go “all in” with playoff talk. A convincing win on the road against the division favorite would do that for me. Just my take…

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Yeah, I expect Jay Gruden saw this when reviewing the game film and will attack with his TEs and Gio Bernard in the passing game this weekend. I hope Ray Horton can choose the right schemes to adjust for this weakness.

  • CB Everett

    yeah, but Tenn losing to Ind hurts our draft position though:( And as a side note, how many nailbiters does Indy eek out week after week? Their record could easily be flipped.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I don’t think it really matters that much though… Indy is going to make the playoffs because the rest of the teams in their division are garbage, so we’re going to get a low first round pick from them regardless.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    KC Joyner, you are not helping me to temper my expectations!

    http://insider.espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/9972730/nfl-why-cleveland-browns-make-playoffs

  • bossman09

    That was sorta my point – I don’t think this team is for real – but it’s certainly in the best position to compete going forward than it’s been in years. I think we should all be prepared for 7-9 and no playoffs, but the good news is that it’s no fluke and we should EXPECT 8-8 or better next year.

  • Mic

    I’m with buckeyedawg. If we pull off a W on Sunday, you’ll see wfny erupt.

  • maxfnmloans

    half a season to go…

  • cmm13

    ALRIGHT, THAT’S IT….
    For too long has the city suffered in anguish, for too long have we watched our heroes defeated time and time again, for too long has the ring eluded us.

    This Sunday we do battle with the Lord of the League’s evil creatures, The Bengals.

    Gentlemen…. it’s time to summon THE MASTERS OF THE GRIDIRON.

    http://youtu.be/hHx6-ekmawk

  • BuckeyeDawg

    I’m not ready to say that I don’t think this team is for real. 7-9 or 8-8 is certainly still a possibility, maybe even a probability. But every year it seems like someone gets hot at the right time and makes an improbable run. Not saying it’s likely that this is our year for that, but the fact that it’s even a realistic possibility at this point in the season is exciting in itself.

  • Root4Cleveland

    Does anybody else miss the days of Pat Shurmer? We were seeing so much more progress then, remember? Every week you could count on it: progress. In fact, if this team wins many more games I’m going to be concerned: there might not be enough room for more progress. And that’s what it’s all about, really: progress. We need more progress. We need Shurmer.

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    yeah but… it’s not like he didn’t know know he had gresham and eifert going against the notably short brown secondary in the first game. i mean what you’re saying makes sense but it made sense last game too. iow, i not only have questions about dalton, but also gruden.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Yes, but it also made sense to try to attack Buster Skrine and Chris Owens in that game more than our linebackers. The Bengals torched Skrine last year. A number of the targets to AJ Green (15 total) came with Skrine and Owens covering him. We’ll see what happens, maybe Gruden doesn’t adjust at all and plays right into the Browns’ hands.

  • eldaveablo

    Denver is scary, but people here (I live in Denver) are terrified of Peyton’s ankle injury. Not to mention, historically he is less than a juggernaut in the playoffs. Everything hinges on him, which is scary considering he is banged up and old. Their O-line is in shambles too.

    I think you hit the nail on the head for the lack of comments. Persoanlly, I’m trying not to think about it too much until Sunday morning. Then I’ll throw on my Joe Thomas Jersey and head to the Mile High Browns Backers bar extra early.

    Go Browns!

  • mgbode

    yeah, and I’ll sacrifice a few spots in the draft for a better chance at the playoffs any day.

  • mgbode

    yeah, that ankle and Peyton’s falloff last year are reasons for concern (does his arm have what it used to for the extended season?).

    KC has Alex Smith and we hung with them already this year.

    the only team that is sort of scary in the AFC is NE because they are getting healthier and more dangerous. of course, we get a shot at them in a couple weeks.

  • C-Bus Kevin

    I want the playoffs. Bad.

    But maybe more importantly, I DO NOT, under any circumstances, want to see Weeden on the field for this team again. Please Jason…please stay healthy. I’m enjoying watching these games. But if Weeden sees the field…I’m out.

    Well…not out, of course. Just depressed.

  • http://twitter.com/bbo13 B-bo

    I don’t trust this team for a second. I don’t trust any of our teams to do anything but deliver soul-crushing losses just as soon as we all start buying in, talking big, and believing. My approach to all Cleveland teams at this point in my life as a fan is simple: prove it. I don’t care how big the players talk, how brilliant the coaches look, or how jazzed the fan base is. Sunday’s game is exactly the sort that a Cleveland team would manage to lose. Win it, and I’ll be willing to let the guard down a bit and enjoy it without waiting for the other shoe to drop–for a week anyway.

  • saggy

    me: “if the Browns win this week, they’ll be on top of the division.”

    my wife: “that’s weird.”

    haha. yes…yes it is…

  • saggy

    i also think it’s fair to say that Skrine and Owens are much better players at this point in the season than they were even just a few weeks ago. They’ve gotten more experience and confidence.

    I won’t say that I’m content with them, merely happy.