Buoyed by their win over the Ravens on Nov. 3 and Baltimore’s overtime win against Cincinnati on Sunday, Cleveland’s players were bubbling over the possibilities of the next seven weeks. The Browns (4-5) visit Cincinnati (6-4) on Sunday with a chance to take the next step and further close the gap.
“It’s one of the biggest games we’ve had here in awhile. Well, it is the biggest game we’ve had here in awhile,” cornerback Buster Skrine said.
Wins over the Bengals and then at home vs. the Steelers would put the Browns into first place in the AFC North with five games left. The Browns haven’t played a meaningful game this late in the season since 2007.
“You talk to the Cleveland community, I’m pretty sure they’ll tell you it’s time,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “And I’m telling you personally — it’s time.
“We definitely earned the right to be in this position. We just have to take care of our business.”
The Browns don’t look or talk like a team that’s lost three of its last four. They narrowly lost to the unbeaten Chiefs in Kansas City, then ended an 11-game losing streak to the Ravens before the bye. Quarterback Jason Campbell was inserted into the lineup against the Chiefs and his impressive performances restored the team’s confidence.
“With everything that’s happened this year, we couldn’t ask to be in a better position,” said Jackson, referencing the trade of running back Trent Richardson and the use of three starting quarterbacks in the first eight games. “Now we know who we have. We know who’s going to be here. We know who’s playing quarterback. We know somewhat what our identity is. So now it’s time to make those leaps and bounds throughout the season to get us where we want to be.”
The Browns were refreshed, refocused and re-energized after four days off. The break at the bye is always welcomed, but coming back to work can be difficult, especially with snow in the forecast. It’s a different world when there’s hope, as compared to the 2-7 record of a year ago.
“I went from 81 degrees to 40,” said outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard, who was in Miami to watch his son play football. “It definitely feels good to come back after a win. It’s not depressing around here. There’s a lot more energy.”
Skrine was glued to the television Sunday and reacted like the rest of Browns Town when the Bengals forced overtime with a successful Hail Mary.
“I said, ‘This can’t be happening. There’s no way they’re going to get that lucky,’” Skrine said. “But A.J. (Green) ends up making a good catch and then with the overtime I was just pulling for the Ravens to win it.”
The Browns don’t normally pull for the Ravens (4-5), but the Bengals are the leaders of the division. Cleveland split with the Ravens this year and beat Cincinnati 17-6 at home in Week 4. The Browns haven’t swept the Bengals since 2002, their lone playoff trip since returning in 1999.
The players know exactly what’s in front of them.
“Just a chance to sweep Cincinnati and just let them know it’s a new face in the AFC North,” nose tackle Phil Taylor said. “Like Coach is saying, we’re not the little brother anymore.”
The Browns likely need to finish 9-7 to have a chance at a division title or a wild-card spot. That would require a 5-2 record after the bye under increasing pressure.
Taylor isn’t worried about the young team’s ability to handle the magnitude of the moment.
“We’re ready. And we’ve showed people what we can do with the top-notch teams,” he said. “Everybody’s talking about Cleveland this, the mistake on the lake, all this other stuff, man. It’s time for a change. We’re tired of losing around here. We’ve got the talent in here to go all the way to the top, we’ve just got to get it done.”
“I think guys are tired of that culture and that mindset of not being relevant in November,” tight end Jordan Cameron said. “It’s time and we just gotta keep this rolling.”
Rookie coach Rob Chudzinski would prefer if the players avoided the big picture and focused on the task at hand.
“We talk about our goals, but more specifically and most of the time, we talk about what we need to do right here and now, because that’s the thing you can control,” he said. “All of the other things, people talk about all of the different scenarios and you start to get caught up in those things and you miss out on the present. So we’re really focusing on the present.
“I think the guys have seen that we can play with anybody, if we’re on top of our game and doing the things that we need to do and taking care of ourselves. I think that they’re excited about playing. That’s what I see in them.”
One of Chudzinski’s mottos is “Win the one.” It’s painted in brown and orange above the doors that lead to the practice field.
“Win that day. Win that rep. Win that series, whatever it is,” Cameron said. “It’s really just focusing on your job, that play and getting that job done and repeat it. Keep repeating it.
“You can get caught up in a lot of other things being a young team and you can get caught up in trying to make huge plays, trying to make 14-point plays. If you take care of the small things, then the big things will take care of themselves.”
As a team leader, Jackson has drilled that message into the youngsters. He’s pressed pause on any premature playoff talk.
“Walk it. Prepare like it. Play like it. But let it come,” he said. “Let the chips fall where they may ’cause we’re too young to keep talking about it and talking about it ’cause we’ve still got to go out and play the game.
“Once we get to that point, then I’ll be the first in line to talk about it. But right now, Coach has this saying, ‘Win the one.’ And that’s what we have to do from here on out to put ourselves in that position. So when that time comes, I’ll be chanting and hollering and doing all that, man. Trust me.”