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Six-Year Itch? Browns Hoping To Remain Relevant In AFC North Race

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Davone Bess' two-touchdown effort in Week 9 helped make up for a drop-filled performance the week before and kept the Browns within shouting distance of the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North. Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images.
Davone Bess' two-touchdown effort in Week 9 helped make up for a drop-filled performance the week before and kept the Browns within shouting distance of the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North. Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images.

It would have been hard – almost impossible – on any number of occasions earlier this season to believe it would or could happen, but Sunday’s upcoming game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium is the Cleveland Browns’ biggest in six years.

Not since 2007 – when they finished 10-6 and lost out on tiebreakers to the Pittsburgh Steelers (for the AFC North title) and to the Tennessee Titans (for the conference’s final wild-card playoff spot) – that the Browns have played a meaningful game this late in the season.

Following the Bengals’ 20-17 loss in overtime to Baltimore on Sunday, Cleveland – which had its bye over the weekend – is tied with the Ravens for second place in the division, 1½ games behind the Bengals.

Perhaps it is just as hard to believe the last-place Pittsburgh Steelers, who started 0-4, are only two games in back of the Bengals following their 23-10 victory over the Buffalo Bills.

As such, this is the tightest race in the North from top to bottom since it was created in 2002.

With a win in Week 11, the Browns could get to within a half-half game of Cincinnati with six to go. On top of that, they would own the first tiebreaker with the Bengals since they won the teams’ first meeting six weeks ago at FirstEnergy Stadium.

Not bad for a club that started 0-2 and then fell to 3-5 following three straight losses before defeating the Ravens 24-18 on Nov. 3. It ended an 11-game losing streak to Baltimore dating back to that 2007 season.

The Browns have battled their way through injuries at quarterback all year. But with a chance to rest over the weekend and heal their bumps and bruises at all positions, they are about as healthy as they’ve been since training camp. Thus, they have no excuses for failing to beat Cincinnati.

But it won’t be easy. The Bengals are reeling and, with that, will be in an angry mood. They’ve lost two games in a row in overtime by a combined five points, ending what had been a four-game winning streak. One of their other losses was a 24-21 decision to the Chicago Bears in the opener, meaning three of their four losses have come by a total of just eight points. The Browns were the only team to handle the Bengals on the scoreboard with their 11-point victory.

With its backs against the wall and once-sizeable lead in the division slipping away, Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis’ team will be digging in its heals and trying to stand its ground with a win to regain some momentum.

Also standing in Cleveland’s way is the fact it has not won in Cincinnati since 2008 (20-12). The Browns, though, have played the Bengals close at Paul Brown Stadium since then, with the last three meetings being decided by a combined 12 points.

The key for Cleveland on Sunday will be keeping QB Jason Campbell healthy and not having to go to backup Brandon Weeden. With Campbell and Brian Hoyer under center, the Browns have played well. Those two have combined for a 4-1 record as starters. Meanwhile, Weeden is 0-4 as a starter.

Hoyer, who has since been lost for the season with a knee injury, went the distance in the earlier meeting with Cincinnati; Campbell is making his third consecutive start. His first was a 23-17 loss to unbeaten Kansas City on Oct. 27 in which the Browns missed out on an upset bid when WR Davone Bess dropped three passes and fumbled a punt in Chiefs’ territory midway through the fourth quarter.

But in keeping with the topsy-turvy flavor of this season, Bess bounced back to catch a career-high two touchdown passes from Campbell to lead the win over the Ravens.

The Browns have to somehow find a way to run the football down the stretch. They have averaged just 3.7 yards per carry this year. Their leading rusher, Willis McGahee, has only 262 yards and might be running out of stream. As a result, it will be critical for two players with younger legs – Chris Ogbonnaya and Fozzy Whittaker – to step up as both runners and receivers.

We’ve focused on offense, but the thing that may well carry the Browns to the finish line is the thing that has carried them to this point – the defense. The Browns don’t have an elite unit on that side of the ball yet, but they’re getting closer by the week. Sparked by their 31 sacks – including a team-leading four by rookie OLB Barkevious Mingo – this is the best defense they’ve had since they returned to the field in 1999. And it is getting healthier, especially in the front seven.

A loss to the Bengals wouldn’t necessarily knock the Browns out of playoff contention, but it would put a big dent into their hopes. The Browns aren’t thinking about that, though. They’re focusing on the tremendous opportunity they have in front of them. It is one they haven’t had since 2007, when many players on their current roster were still in college or, in some cases, high school.