The Browns will end their season with three games against AFC North rivals for the first time. They haven’t ended a season with three division games since 1984 in the old AFC Central.
The NFL’s emphasis on division games late in the year moves the needle by itself. Everything that’s riding on the last three weeks of Cleveland’s season should make the stretch run a true must-see.
Coach Eric Mangini’s job could be saved or lost. Rookie Colt McCoy, who returns to the lineup today against the Bengals, will play in the Ohio cold for the first time with the chance to prove he’s the franchise’s quarterback of the future. The Browns will help decide the North title by hosting Baltimore and Pittsburgh over the last two weeks.
“We’ll all be judged, from Eric all the way down to the last player on the roster,” linebacker David Bowens said. “It’s all about character. How we perform and how we play and how we finish up in the face of not making the playoffs, I think that’s going to show a lot of character for a lot of people.”
“There’s no quit in us,” receiver Joshua Cribbs said. “We don’t want to lose any more games. We want to win, period. We want to win out. That’s the plan, so we’re gonna prepare as such.”
Mangini’s Browns won their final four last year after a 1-11 start. He will likely need two wins in the last three games to return for a third season, and decided to go with McCoy over veteran Jake Delhomme.
Mangini said McCoy had earned the job, but a strong finish behind the rookie would also be a strong statement that Mangini’s program is headed in the right direction with the right guy at quarterback – finally. Mangini was asked if he consulted on the choice with president Mike Holmgren, who will decide Mangini’s fate after the season.
“Ultimately it was my decision,” Mangini said. “I let Mike know about it and we talked through it and he’s been great with any decisions that have taken place during the course of the year.”
Mangini broke character by naming McCoy the starter for the rest of the season and spoke all week as if he had found inner peace. The disappointing 13-6 loss to the lowly Bills last week heightened the speculation about his job security, but Mangini didn’t get dragged down. Perhaps he feels he’s done everything he can do and the progress made by the team in his two seasons should be enough evidence that he deserves to stay.
“I feel good about the things that we’ve done and the direction of the team,” he said.
The move to McCoy was a hit with the fans, who were disgusted watching Delhomme the previous three weeks. With an eighth straight season certain to end without a playoff game, the fans need something to cling to. McCoy is that something.
He showed plenty of promise in five starts before spraining his ankle, going 2-3 with wins over New Orleans and New England.
“This is by no stretch just throwing a young guy in for the sake of throwing a young guy in,” Mangini said. “If I didn’t think that he could go out and lead us and be successful doing that, then I wouldn’t make this decision, but I do feel that way and I feel strongly about it.”
Mangini described McCoy as “excited and determined” to be starting again. McCoy told reporters it wasn’t a “landmark” day and that his focus was on winning games.
“That’s what we have got to do,” he said. “Last week, we had a ton of opportunities to be able to take advantage of what they were doing. Collectively as a group, we just didn’t find a way to get it done.
“We have got to have more energy on the sidelines, we have got to be a little more amped up, more excited when we make a play and let’s build off of that.”
McCoy slid into the third round of the draft because he’s only 6-foot-1 and doesn’t have a rocket arm. He threw the ball well in the earlier starts, but some questions remain about his ability to throw through the cold, snow and wind of December.
“It was pretty cold yesterday and pretty cold last week, but I didn’t really see much effect on the way he threw or the way the balls hit their mark,” Mangini said. “I feel pretty comfortable with it.
“He’s ideally going to be operating in this kind of weather for a long time.”
If Mangini wants to stay in the “Cleveland weather” he loves so much, he can’t afford a second straight loss to a two-win team. The Bengals are 2-11 and on a 10-game skid.
After peaking with the wins over the Saints and Patriots, the Browns have leveled off in a series of close games that could’ve gone either way. Time remains to regain the momentum and finish strong.
“I like it here in Cleveland, we don’t want to move. (Heck), we shouldn’t have to move if we go out here and take care of business like we should,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “This is our conference, this is exciting. We’ve got our conference and there’s not a better measuring stick than going out and playing these guys at the end of the year.”
The commissioner’s office decided to backload the schedule with division games after many teams were able to rest starters in the final weeks after locking up the title. Mangini is 1-2 in the North this year, 2-7 in his two years.
“I think there’s really a lot of merit to it, it makes things very exciting at the end of the season,” he said. “Everybody’s playing each other when things are being decided.”
Veteran cornerback Sheldon Browns loves the idea of finishing inside the division. But he made it known the uncertainty surrounding Mangini isn’t a factor for him.
“I’m going to tell you this: If you’re a player and you get caught up in what’s going on in management, you’re not going to play well on the field,” he said. “You let them make the decision and you just believe that they know what they’re doing. If you do that, then it’ll be great.
“But if you start trying to be the player, the GM, the president, the owner … there’s a hierarchy in place for a reason. Once you believe in the plan, you let those guys do what they do and you just believe and we’re always working toward the common goal. But once you start trying to be the GM or something, you might as well retire.”
JUST THE FACTS
• WHO: Browns at Bengals
• WHERE: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati
• WHEN: Today, 1 p.m.
• RECORDS: Browns 5-8; Bengals 2-11
• LAST WEEK: Browns lost 13-6 at Miami; Bengals lost 23-7 at Pittsburgh
• SERIES: Bengals lead 38-36
• SERIES AT CINCINNATI: Bengals lead 23-14
• LAST MEETING: Browns won 23-20 on Oct. 3 in Cleveland
• COACHES: Eric Mangini is 10-19 with Browns, 33-45 overall; Marvin Lewis is 58-68-1 with Bengals and overall
• TV/RADIO: Channel 19, with broadcasters Don Criqui and Steve Beuerlein; WMMS 100.7-FM, WTAM 1100-AM
• NFL RANKINGS (OUT OF 32 TEAMS): Browns – offense 29th (17th rushing, 27th passing), defense 22nd (23rd rushing, 16th passing); Bengals – offense 24th (30th rushing, 15th passing), defense 21st (24th rushing, 15th passing)
• BROWNS UPDATE: Browns are tied for the NFL lead with six players who have multiple interceptions.
• Browns were called for a season-low two penalties last week. They rank sixth in the league with 67 on the season.
• LB Matt Roth had a career-high two of the team’s four sacks of Cincinnati’s Carson Palmer in October.
• DE Kenyon Coleman had a career-high two fumble recoveries against the Bengals.
• Browns can sweep the season series for the first time since 2002.
• LB Marcus Benard leads the team with 7½ sacks after one last week. He has 11 in 18 career games.
• LB Chris Gocong had a career-high 10 tackles, including a strip-sack, last week vs. Buffalo.
• Browns are ninth in the NFL in points allowed, 19.4.
• Browns are 2-5 on the road.
• K Phil Dawson his 28-for-31 on field-goal attempts in 21 games against Cincinnati.
• QB Seneca Wallace started against the Bengals in October. He went 18-for-30 for 184 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
• NT Ahtyba Rubin has 64 tackles, trailing Buffalo’s Kyle Williams by one for the league lead among defensive linemen.
• TE Benjamin Watson needs 62 yards to surpass his career high of 643 in 2006.
• Mangini has lost his only two replay challenges this season.
• BENGALS UPDATE: Bengals failed to sell out the Browns game for the first time since 1987. The last non-strike Bengals-Browns game not to sell out in Cincinnati was 1979.
• It is the third straight TV blackout for the Bengals after a streak of 57 consecutive home sellouts.
• Lewis is 10-5 against Cleveland for a franchise-best .667 winning percentage.
• WR Jordan Shipley and TE Jermaine Gresham share the AFC rookie lead with 47 catches.
• LB Dhani Jones leads the team with 130 tackles.
• Bengals have 13 players on injured reserve, including nine veteran defenders who saw significant playing time.
• Bengals are 20th in the NFL in scoring, 20.2 points a game.
• Bengals are 28th in scoring defense, 26.5 points.
• Bengals have lost 10 straight, tying the franchise’s longest skid in a season. Eleven straight losses are the most ever by Cincinnati.
• Bengals are tied for 24th in the league with a minus-6 turnover ratio.
• OL Kirk Chambers was drafted by the Browns in the sixth round in 2004.
• The defense didn’t allow a touchdown last week in a loss to Pittsburgh.
• Bengals have won nine of the last 12 against the Browns. Cincinnati is 14-9 in the series since 1999.
• Bengals have faced the most difficult schedule in the league, as their opponents have a .595 winning percentage.
• Bengals lead the NFL on fourth down with an .857 conversion rate.
• BROWNS INJURY REPORT: Out: LB Scott Fujita (knee), TE Evan Moore (hip); Questionable: LB Marcus Benard (shoulder), LB David Bowens (head), CB Sheldon Brown (shoulder), DE Kenyon Coleman (knee), DL Shaun Rogers (ankle, hip); Probable: WR Joshua Cribbs (foot), QB Colt McCoy (ankle), OL John St. Clair (ankle), DE Brian Schaefering (illness), FB Lawrence Vickers (shoulder, hamstring), OL Floyd Womack (shoulder), CB Eric Wright (knee)
• BENGALS INJURY REPORT: Doubtful: CB Jonathan Wade (knee); Questionable: WR Terrell Owens (knee); Probable: CB Johnathan Joseph (ankle), WR Chad Ochocinco (ankle), LB Keith Rivers (foot), DT Pat Sims (knee)
• THE PICK: Two desperate teams produce an entertaining game as the Browns offense bounces back. But Carson Palmer and Co. make one more big play. Bengals 28-27.