The Cleveland Browns are 6-3 after handing the rival, Cincinnati Bengals, their first home loss of the season on Thursday Night Football. They blew Cincy out of their own building 24-3, frustrating Andy Dalton to throw 10/33 and three picks, while limiting A.J. Green to three catches. Each running back scored touchdown: Terrence West, Isaiah Crowell, and Ben Tate.
They only have to play one more game without Josh Gordon, last season’s leading receiver. Next week they host the Houston Texans, who just made a change at quarterback. Gordon will make his 2014 debut in week 12, when the Browns travel to play the Atlanta Falcons, a team that has fallen off the map.
Depending on how the other AFC teams do this weekend, the Browns have pulled within a half game of the Bengals, who lead the AFC North. From a wildcard standpoint, the Browns would range between a 5th and 6th seed, or as low as 8th place in the AFC. There are a group of teams that are bunched up with Cleveland: Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, and Miami Dolphins. The Bills and Chiefs square off this weekend, and the Steelers face the struggling New York Jets. The streaking Dolphins face the streaking Detroit Lions, who have the top-ranked defense in the league. All of these teams are as healthy as they’re expecting to be the rest of the way.
Cleveland has played hard and won more games than they did in 2013, all without Gordon up to this point. They mix in a trio of running backs, which has kept the backfield productive by using the hot-hand approach. Brian Hoyer has been excellent in managing the offense in a contract year. There hasn’t been many weapons for Hoyer to look to, and he lost an upper echelon center in Alex Mack to injury. Jordan Cameron has been in, and mostly out, of the lineup with three concussions this season. Andrew Hawkins has been quietly good in the slot all year long, even he missed the game against the Bengals. That’s pretty much been the story for the receiving core, as Miles Austin is past his prime and the backup tight ends are better served as blockers. Young players like Travis Benjamin and Taylor Gabriel have made plays in recent weeks to keep them in the win column.
Despite allowing the 4th most yards, the Browns defense has actually allowed the 8th fewest points. They are aggressive, led by ball-hawk safety, Tashaun Gipson, who leads the league with six interceptions. Their bend but don’t break defense has kept them in games. Of their three losses: their comeback fell short in week 1 as the Steelers escaped with a field goal as time expired, they blew a 4th quarter lead and lost to the Ravens by a field goal as time expired, and they had a flat day giving the Jacksonville Jaguars their first win on the year 24-6. They’ve been in every game but one, also considering every team has a bad week. Holding things over and exceeding outside expectations, Gordon is their best player and will have fresher legs than every cornerback that covers him. Gordon will play in the team’s final six games, all pivotal weeks for playoff hopefuls. Head Coach and defensive guru, Mike Pettine, has done a great job changing the culture, while Kyle Shanahan is getting the most out of the offense with mediocre talent.
Week 11 vs Houston (AFC playoff picture opponent, first start of QB Ryan Mallett’s career for 4-5 Texans)
Week 12 at Atlanta (struggling 2-6 non-conference opponent)
Week 13 at Buffalo (AFC playoff picture opponent at 5-3)
Week 14 vs Indianapolis (AFC playoff picture opponent at 6-3, currently with identical records)
Week 15 vs Cincinnati (won first matchup 24-3 and Bengals are 5-3-1)
Week 16 at Carolina (struggling non-conference opponent at 3-5-1)
Week 17 at Baltimore (lost first matchup 23-21 with 5-4 record)
In 2014, you can’t say that the Falcons and Panthers should beat the Browns. After watching the Ravens eek out a victory as time expired, you can’t say it’s an automatic win for them either. The Texans and Bills have already gone through quarterback changes, and they already won at Cincinnati. The toughest game remaining is when they host the Colts, and they will be underdogs but that is why you play the game.