CLEVELAND (AP) — The Browns are in unfamiliar territory. The challenge is staying there.
With a tougher-than-it-should-have-been win at Jacksonville on Sunday, Cleveland clinched just its third winning record over the last 21 years. The Browns strengthened their grip on a playoff spot with one month left in this masked, muddled season.
Yes, the Browns and the playoffs in the same sentence. Imagine that.
At 8-3, Cleveland, which went an imperfect 0-16 just three years ago, has been a postseason outsider since 2002. It is still not being taken seriously by many pundits and fans, but has its best 11-game record since 8-2-1 in 1969.
The Browns look like legitimate contenders with the No. 5 playoff seed. Appearances can be deceiving.
They've taken advantage of a mushy schedule, going 3-0 so far against the underwhelming NFC East, 3-0 versus the AFC South, and have two wins over the lowly Cincinnati Bengals (2-8-1). Still, the Browns are following rookie coach Kevin Stefanski's “just go 1-0 this week” mandate and winning — and at this time of the year, that's all that matters.
Baker Mayfield missed a couple easy throws that could have built Cleveland's lead, and the Browns were called for a late roughing call that allowed the Jaguars (1-10) to hang around until the end on Sunday before losing 27-25.
The test will be much tougher this week for the Browns, who will travel to Tennessee and take on the Titans (8-3), a team with Super Bowl aspirations and one capable of debunking the Browns as a serious threat going forward.
But with star defensive end Myles Garrett set to return from a two-game COVID absence, the Browns, who have one win against a team with a winning record, believe they're up to the challenge.
“I do not look at the Titans as a super team,” wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge said Monday. "They can get beat like anybody else. We go into this game expecting to win and we are expecting to do our thing. I see this team going deep into playoffs, as far as we can go.
"No one can stop us but us. That is how we look at it. That is how we are going to keep looking at it. As long as we play our game, we can beat anybody.”
Stefanski feels the Browns have room to grow.
“I do not think I have coached my best. I think as a staff we can do a better job. I know I can do a better job,” he said “That is the ideal here to be ascending in the second half of this season. December football. That is when you really do want to start playing your best football.”
Nick Chubb's return after missing four games with a sprained knee has the Browns' running game revving at full speed again.
With 207 yards on Sunday, Cleveland moved back atop the league's rushing chart, averaging 161.4 yards per game. Chubb (719) and Kareem Hunt (706) are on track to break 1,000 yards apiece and the Browns figure to turn to them even more in cold weather and to put defenses away.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Injuries and COVID-19 have ravaged Cleveland's defense, which was already missing three starters going into Sunday's game, then lost safety Ronnie Harrison with a shoulder injury on Jacksonville's first play.
The secondary has been in constant change, and with all the moving parts, prone to mistakes and miscommunication.
Jarvis Landry's overdue breakout game finally arrived as the sure-handed receiver had a huge performance Sunday with eight catches for 143 yards and his first TD of 2020.
Landry had been slowed by a broken rib and lingering effects from offseason hip surgery. He's feeling better, and it also helped Cleveland's passing game that the Browns finally played in nice weather after three windy, rainy home games.
Rookie tight end Harrison Bryant had two critical errors against the Jaguars. He fumbled after a catch early in the third quarter and Jacksonville capitalized on the turnover by scoring a TD. Bryant also failed to come down with a TD catch in the end zone.
The miscues didn't cause Stefanski to lose any confidence in the fourth-round pick.
“He has made plays for us this season,” Stefanski said. "We have a ton of faith in him. He is a kid that works very, very hard so I anticipate that he will bounce back.”
Harrison was undergoing further tests. Cornerback Denzel Ward (strained calf) will likely be out again this week. The Browns activated fullback Andy Janovich from the COVID-19 list, which should help them in short-yardage situations. They got stopped on a critical fourth-down running play Sunday.
The status for linebacker Sione Takitaki and defensive ends Porter Gustin and Joe Jackson, all out with COVID1-9, won't be known until later this week.
113 — Mayfield's pass attempts since his last interception, a mistake-free, five-game span during which the Browns have gone 4-1.
A throw-back, trench-warfare meeting with the Titans and their powerful running back, Derrick Henry, who gashed the Colts for 178 yards and three TDs on Sunday. Tennessee routed Cleveland 43-13 in last season's opener, a demoralizing loss that sent the Browns on a season-long downward spiral.
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