The only thing missing from the routine this year is the constant conversation about a coaching change. Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini and Pat Shurmur were fired within the last five years after losing to Pittsburgh, but Rob Chudzinski should be safe as he completes a rocky first year in charge.
CEO Joe Banner will meet with reporters this week to assess the season and Chudzinski’s performance. Banner’s last news conference came in mid-November and he praised Chudzinski. That was before the season turned sour.
The Browns (4-11) have lost six straight and nine of 10. A loss at Heinz Field would mark the first time the Browns have dropped seven straight to end a season.
Avoiding such a distinction is only one of the reasons the Browns vowed to be focused all week and motivated today. They can eliminate the Steelers (7-8) from the playoffs with a win, which would also mark the first time Cleveland has beaten all three AFC North rivals in the same season. A 3-3 record against Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh would be a sign of progress is another depressing season.
“That would be big,” Chudzinski said. “It’s something that would mean a lot.”
“Coach brought it to our attention,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “With everything that’s happened throughout this season, if we can go out and prove we can beat every team in our division, that’s the way you get to the playoffs — winning your division. It’s a great step moving forward.”
In his search for motivation in a “meaningless” game, Chudzinski stressed the division goal and the spoiler role. If the Browns won’t make the playoffs for the 11th straight year, why not have the Steelers join them on the sidelines for the second straight season.
“It’s a personal focus for me,” said center Alex Mack, who’s scheduled to become a free agent in the offseason. “You want to win games and you want to do things. I don’t get to go to the playoffs and I get to share that love around.”
Pittsburgh needs a win and losses by Baltimore, Miami and San Diego to squeak into the playoffs as the AFC’s sixth seed. The Ravens are at Cincinnati, the Dolphins host the Jets and the Chargers host Kansas City.
For many Browns, the importance of a season-ending victory goes well beyond spreading their misery to the rival Steelers
“It’s not about being spoilers,” said quarterback Jason Campbell, who’s trying to snap out of a funk that’s contributed to four interceptions in the last two games. “We just want to end the season the right way.
“The Steelers, after the bye week, they’ve been a different football team. They’ve rallied and are playing very well. We understand the challenge we’re going against, but for us as a team, our challenge is to ourselves to go out and play well.”
As the Browns blew leads and slipped into oblivion, the Steelers rallied from an 0-4 start to win five of the last seven, including 27-11 in Cleveland on Nov. 24, and cling to their playoff dreams. They’ve shown the mental toughness built from years of winning close games – and a lot of them.
The Browns are desperate to prove they can finish something. A win in the finale would accomplish that on two levels.
“The good teams are able to make those plays and make those key stops to separate yourself,” Jackson said. “Right now, with the foundation that was created with the players, I think it’s a good start, but it does no good if we don’t go out and leave on a good note. If we go out and lay an egg, we’re going to think about that all offseason. So it’s very important for us to focus on winning the football game.”
Cornerback Joe Haden will be a gametime decision as he deals with a hip pointer. He wants to salvage something from the year of disappointment.
“Our season hasn’t gone well, period,” he said. “We just want to win. It’s not about going into the offseason with a taste in our mouths. Our season was not what we wanted at all.
“Just win a game, just for us. Don’t worry about spoiling nobody’s stuff. We want to prove we are the team we thought we could be this whole year.”
A large number of fans – and possibly the front office – would disagree that a win is in the long-term best interest of the organization. With a win, the Browns could fall as low as No. 8 in the draft order. A loss would likely cement a top-five pick, with the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker yet to be determined.
“I don’t think of anything else other than winning and doing the things to give ourselves the best chance to win,” Chudzinski said.
“There’s not one guy in any professional sports, any competitive sports that’s going to say they’re going to lose the game on purpose for a draft pick or for whatever matter,” Jackson said. “So with the competitive juices in us, we want to win the game. We don’t try to position ourselves for a draft pick.”
The Browns are fighting history in their search for a happy ending to the year. They’re 1-6 on the road, and have lost six of seven and 18 of 20 to the Steelers. They’ve lost three straight finales to Pittsburgh and four since 2008.
Change is inevitable regardless of the outcome. Cleveland’s roster will feature plenty of new faces next season, including a quarterback or two. That also means the departure of some familiar faces.
Mack, strong safety T.J. Ward and right guard Shawn Lauvao are in the final years of their contracts, and Banner could decide to not pick up Campbell’s $250,000 roster bonus in March.
“You can’t block that out,” said Ward, who added he wants to return. “I spent four years here and I’ve given a lot to this team and this city and they’ve given a lot to me, so you can’t completely block it out, but I try to stay focused on the task and one week at a time and finish it off right.
“Pittsburgh just makes it that much better being that it is them, but just to finish the season off with a win would be very satisfying.”