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.