AFC North: Cleveland Browns

Every team in the AFC North is at least three games over .500, and every team has playoff hopes.

The situation will sort itself out the next five games, but studying the schedules of the Browns, Bengals, Ravens and Steelers shows that Baltimore has a clear advantage, and the toughest roads belong to the Bengals and Browns.

Not all agree it's that tough for the Bengals, though. The website lists the Ravens with the best chance of making the playoffs, though the Bengals are not far behind. Numberfire lists the Ravens with a 59-percent chance, the Bengals at 56 percent, the Steelers at 50 percent and the Browns at just 23 percent.

None of the four has an easy finish, though at this point of the season nothing is easy.

Here’s a look:

The Baltimore Ravens play San Diego, at Miami, Jacksonville, at Houston and finish at home against Cleveland. Those teams are a combined 26-29 (.472). ... Three games are at home, three against winning teams. ... Baltimore is the only North team whose remaining opponents are below .500. ... After winning on the road impressively in New Orleans, the Ravens have to feel they control their fate if they keep winning. ... The flip side: The opponent won-lost is skewed by one-win Jacksonville. But Baltimore plays just two teams that have won at least seven games, fewest of the North teams, and it has three of their last five at home.

The Cincinnati Bengals play at Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, at Denver and end against Pittsburgh. ... Yes, it’s as tough as it sounds. ... The combined record of those teams: 31-24 (.564). ... Three of five are at home, four of five against winning teams. ... How about that final four for a gantlet? Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver and Pittsburgh again. ... Splitting those four game might mean the Bengals miss the playoffs. ... Three are within the division, and Denver is among the AFC’s best. ... This finish is the most difficult in the division.

The Cleveland Browns play at Buffalo, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, at Carolina and at Baltimore. ... That combined record is 30-24-1. ... The Browns also play four winning teams, with three of the final five on the road. ... That the Browns are even in the discussion is good news for Cleveland, but now the Browns would like to finish the task they’ve started. ...It’s not easy, especially since the Colts are one of the non-division games. That’s an exceptionally tough late draw. ... The Browns would love to be alive for the season finale in Baltimore, but to do so they have to take care of business in three of the next four games. Buffalo is close to a must win.

The Pittsburgh Steelers play New Orleans, at Cincinnati, at Atlanta and finish at home against Kansas City and Cincinnati. ... The combined record: 29-24-2. ... Three are at home, three against winning teams. ... Finishing at home the final two weeks helps, but Pittsburgh’s hopes might come down to how they fare against Cincinnati. ... Do the Bengals split, or does one team escape with two wins? If the Steelers can sweep, that might propel them. ... The negative about the final two home games: They figure to be against two teams fighting for their playoff lives as well.
Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine made clear the Browns’ concerns with the hotel lobby scrum that involved Johnny Manziel early Saturday are largely because of when it happened.

“We’re never comfortable -- and I think [general manager] Ray [Farmer] alluded to it in our release -- with guys being involved in incidents that late at night,” Pettine said on the Mike and Mike show. “We trust that they’re going to be making good choices. The saying in the league, nothing good happens after midnight. That’s certainly the case the closer you get to the game.”

The police report about the scrum indicated it happened at 2:36 a.m. the same day the team was going to fly to Atlanta.

Two vastly different versions of events have been published, with the person involved saying he was a fan trying to talk to Manziel and Manziel’s agent saying the fan approached Manziel and a friend aggressively.

Either way, the team clearly is concerned that Manziel was in the position to be involved in something as 3 a.m. approached.

The concern is valid for a professional. It’s never good when a player has an incident in the wee hours before he and his teammates are flying to a game. It’s a spin off the old Irish saying: Don’t be going out when you should be coming in.

Pettine was also asked if what happened would affect his decision to play Manziel, if he ever decided to do so.

He hesitated briefly before saying: “Unless something unforeseen comes up, given what I know it would not have an impact on any decision to play him.”

This doesn’t mean Manziel is about to see the field.

Pettine made it more than clear on Monday that Brian Hoyer is the Browns quarterback.
ATLANTA -- The Cleveland Browns drafted Joel Bitonio as a nasty finisher on blocks, but his 4.97 speed in the 40-yard dash might have saved the Browns' playoff hopes.

Bitonio was one of several Browns rookies to make huge contributions in the 26-24 win against the Falcons. The starting left guard tackled Devin Hester on a return off a missed 60-yard Billy Cundiff field goal, stopping a touchdown as time expired at the half. Bitonio was the last line of defense in this case.

"Hall-of-Fame, greatest kick returner of all time versus slow, fat, left guard rookie and the guy [freakin'] makes the tackle," left tackle Joe Thomas said. "Unbelievable."

Added coach Mike Pettine: "That could end up being the play of the year for us."

Here's a look at rookies that played big Sunday. The Browns' success with rookies this season, mainly those outside the first round, has helped bolster a season ravaged by injuries.

Bitonio: Did his usual work on the line that helped the offense post 475 total yards. A Pro Bowl appearance is not out of the question for Bitonio. Been steady all season.

Running backs Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West: The tandem combined for 162 yards, with Crowell carrying lead-dog status after 88 yards and two scores, one of which was absurdly nice (WATCH him redirect the playwhen action behind the tight end block wasn't there). Crowell has taken ownership of the starting job, but the Browns still gave West more carries (14 to Crowell's 12). It's clear they believe in both players, even if Crowell has the edge right now. "I think he's figured out the practice part," said Pettine about Crowell, suggesting Crowell's lack of carries midway through the season was a byproduct of weekly preparation.

Corners K'Waun Williams and Justin Gilbert: A sequence from the Falcons' game that probably deserved more focus was Williams on back-to-back corner blitzes to hit Matt Ryan on Atlanta's second-to-last drive. The second blitz knocked Ryan to force a wobbly airball that Buster Skrine almost intercepted. Williams said after the game those were his only two blitzes all game. Timely, indeed. The undrafted Williams was a brilliant find for Cleveland. Gilbert got more playing time because of the Falcons' three- and four-receiver sets, and he produced with a late-game stop on third-and-2 downfield, breaking up a Ryan lob pass down the sideline.

Linebacker Chris Kirksey: His stat line Sunday didn't show it -- five tackles, no splash plays -- but Kirksey's development was a big reason why the Browns felt they could handle Atlanta without lead linebacker Karlos Dansby, who's injured. Kirksey has good range and plays the run well. He and veteran Craig Robertson were reliable up the middle in Dansby's absence.
It would be tough to find anybody who supports Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer more than the man who matters: His coach.

Mike Pettine, speaking on a conference call the day after Hoyer survived a rough outing to lead a game-winning drive in Atlanta, said the Browns never thought of removing Hoyer for Johnny Manziel.

"We never considered it," Pettine said.

[+] EnlargeBrian Hoyer
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBrian Hoyer threw three interceptions on Sunday, but still rallied his team to a victory at Atlanta.
The question lingers as long as Manziel is the backup, because there is always a vocal crowd ready for Manziel to play. But the blunt nature of Pettine's reply spoke volumes. And -- his statement related to football and not to the 2:30 a.m. fight at Manziel's downtown place of residence the morning the team flew to Atlanta (timing that is never ideal).

The Browns coaches believe in Hoyer, and Pettine made that more than clear. In the game, Hoyer threw three interceptions, struggled and afterward said he had let his team down. He also won.

"I'm proud of Brian," Pettine said. "He was very hard on himself after the game because I know how much he expects of himself."

Pettine said Hoyer was right to acknowledge his mistakes, and that it was time to move on to Buffalo -- the team Hoyer faced a year ago when he tore his knee ligament.

Sunday, Hoyer's final two interceptions nearly cost the Browns the game. One was in the end zone on first-and-goal from the 6, the next as the Browns clung to a two-point lead and tried to run out the clock.

Hoyer watched from the sidelines as the Falcons kicked a field goal to go up by one, took off his Browns hat and went on the field with 44 seconds left figuring he had nothing to lose.

He completed 4 of 6 passes on the game-winning drive, the last one with no timeouts. He immediately spiked the ball so Billy Cundiff could kick the game-winning field goal.

"The way he handled it was outstanding," Pettine said, adding it was a testament to Hoyer's mental toughness.

Players stood by Hoyer, with Gary Barnidge shrugging off two bad throws and Andrew Hawkins saying on a conference call that "I won't lose sleep over it."

He shouldn't. Hoyer has been sound, dependable and clutch this season -- with four fourth-quarter comebacks and five as a starter in Cleveland. Atlanta was the third time the winning score came in the final two minutes, the second in the final 10 seconds.

The Browns have not lost consecutive games this season and are 7-4 for only the second time since 1999.The team reported today that since 2013, the Browns average 22.9 points and are 10-4 in Hoyer's starts, and average 17.6 points and are 1-12 in other games.

It's easy to pick at a guy for what he doesn't do, and Hoyer himself would admit he has areas he can improve. Pettine -- rightly -- prefers to focus on what Hoyer can do, what he does well and what he brings to the team.

"I think the guys realize we wouldn't be where we are without Brian," Pettine said.

Where the Browns are is 7-4, one-half game behind Cincinnati in the AFC North. They are one of four teams not in first place at 7-4, with 6-4 Baltimore playing New Orleans Monday night.

"The bottom line is we got to keep winning," he said.

Without hesitation or equivocation, and with firm trust and confidence, Pettine believes that Brian Hoyer gives the team its best chance to do that.
ATLANTA -- Forty-four seconds remained in the Georgia Dome on Sunday.

The Atlanta Falcons had just gone ahead by one, turning a brutally bad Brian Hoyer interception into the go-ahead field goal.

That pick was the third of the day for Hoyer, all poor decisions or throws, all leading to him lamenting the fact he had let his team down.

But with 44 seconds left, Hoyer had one last chance.

What was the Cleveland Browns quarterback thinking as he trotted on the field with three timeouts, down one?

“Nothing to lose, really,” he said. “Go out and play the best I can. I’ve already played probably the worst game of my career as it is. Go out and play fearless.”

The worst game of his career included three interceptions and no touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeBrian Hoyer
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBrian Hoyer turned a miserable day (three interceptions, 0 TDs) into a Browns victory with four completions in the final minute.
It included a bad first-half throw on the run to an open Jim Dray that was intercepted.

It included a bad decision on first-and-goal from the 6 as he tried to float a pass in the back of the end zone to Josh Gordon that was intercepted. And it included another bad interception on a misread to Gordon that set up Matt Bryant’s 53-yard field goal that put the Falcons ahead.

“The last one,” Hoyer said, “I thought I lost the game for us.”

Except it didn’t. Because Hoyer didn’t let it.

On the sideline, left tackle Joe Thomas told Hoyer the Browns would drive and win on a field goal. He wasn’t the only believer.

“We didn’t ever think he wouldn’t be able to do it,” Joe Haden said.

“Our faith never wavered,” tight end Gary Barnidge said. “We have complete trust in him. He made a few bad throws, but that happens. That happens to everybody.”

That’s all easy to say after a win of course, but sometimes the key to getting that win is having that belief -- which was buttressed by the fact the Browns had three timeouts.

“If it’s one timeout and 30-some seconds, then it gets a little iffy,” Donte Whitner said.

Atlanta went against what the Browns expected in coverage, and the Browns took advantage. The Falcons brought pressure all game, which opened up throwing lanes in the middle of the field. Instead of playing protect and forcing the Browns to take short throws, they continued to pressure on the final possession.

After a first-down incompletion, Hoyer threw in the face of the blitz to Miles Austin for 11 yards on an out route.

After a timeout, Hoyer stepped up and to the right to avoid pressure from Kroy Biermann and found Gordon for the throw that brought hope to life -- a 24-yard gain to the Atlanta 45. It was catch No. 8 on the day for Gordon in his first game back from a 10-game suspension.

“I know those guys weren’t going to quit on me,” Gordon said, “so I made sure I wasn’t the one who was going to quit on them.”

After the second timeout, Hoyer found Barnidge over the middle for a catch between Dwight Lowery and Kemal Ishmael for 15 yards. Barnidge has made many big catches this season -- against New Orleans especially -- and keeps coming through in clutch circumstances.

“I appreciate him having the trust to throw it,” Barnidge said.

With 16 seconds left, the Browns could have tried a 47-yard field goal, but chose to run one more play, even though they used their last timeout after Barnidge’s catch.

Austin lined up alongside Barnidge, who drove upfield and took coverage with him. Austin cut underneath and caught Hoyer’s throw for 11 yards to the 19. He quickly got to the ground, which allowed the Browns to line and spike the ball to stop clock with five seconds left.

“We have worked that situation,” coach Mike Pettine said.

Hoyer, though, said the team worked on it last week for the first time in a month. Timing sometimes can be everything.

Billy Cundiff’s game-winner from 37 yards went inside the left upright as time expired.

It was a game of missed opportunities, mistakes, ebb and flow and two field goals in the final 49 seconds. But it was a game that the Browns in the past would lose.

This group didn’t, in part thanks to its perseverance as a whole, and in big part thanks to its quarterback’s ability to grind through a tough game and come through in the end (4-of-6 on the game-winning drive with a spike).

His effort might not have been good enough against some teams, but it was against Atlanta.

Sometimes they happen that way.
ATLANTA -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cleveland Browns' 26-24 win against the Atlanta Falcons:

Serious injury: Free safety Tashaun Gipson had been one of the defense's best players this season, but his season may have ended on a freak collision with Joe Haden in the fourth quarter. Gipson left the locker room on crutches, his right knee heavily wrapped. Replays of the completely unintentional collision with Haden showed Gipson's knee bending at an awkward angle. Based on the collision and the way Gipson looked when he left the locker room, his injury is a very serious one.

Tackle of the game: Joe Thomas may have had the quote of the season about the tackle of the game -- when guard Joel Bitonio tracked down Devin Hester and tackled him on a missed field goal return at the end of the half (with help from Spencer Lanning, who slowed up Hester). "That was the most amazing play I've ever seen on a football field," Thomas told a group of media after the game that included the Akron Beacon Journal and Elyria Chronicle. "Because it was like David and Goliath. Hall of Fame, greatest kick returner of all time vs. slow, fat, left guard rookie. And the guy makes the tackle. Unbelievable." The first person to scamper across the field and congratulate Bitonio: defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin.

Missed chances: Players study and set up plays for certain opportunities, and Donte Whitner had his in the first quarter. Whitner perfectly read a pass from Matt Ryan, broke on the ball and had a touchdown in front of him, but he didn't handle it. His explanation shows the detail that goes into team preparation, and how the Browns missed several opportunities to put the game away early. "I knew the route was coming," Whitner said. "Studied it all week. Whenever Hester goes in motion and [the] No. 3 [receiver] drives across, that route was coming. I've been waiting on that and I got my opportunity and didn't capitalize."

Rapid Reaction: Cleveland Browns

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 26-24 win over the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: This one falls into the category of emotionally draining and incredible. The Browns seemed to lose the game seven different ways on Sunday, but Brian Hoyer completed passes to Josh Gordon, Gary Barnidge and Miles Austin to set up Billy Cundiff’s last-play game winner. As bad as this loss would have been to the Browns, the win has to be huge.

Stock watch: Hoyer, anyone? After a game with mistakes aplenty -- including some of his own that were really bad -- Hoyer remained calm when it mattered. With the crowd at its most deafening, Hoyer completed throw after throw to put the Browns in position for Cundiff's winning kick. Hoyer did not have a great game with three interceptions. But he won, and that matters most.

Makes sense: When the Browns went to their two rookie running backs, coach Mike Pettine attributed it in part to the fact that they were more explosive than Ben Tate, whom the team released last week. In the win over the Falcons, Isaiah Crowell showed what Pettine meant. On both of his TD runs, he showed burst, quickness and elusiveness.

Game saver? For reasons that may be difficult to explain, Pettine twice tried a 60-yard field goal to end the first half. Cundiff was short on the first try (the Falcons called a timeout), but that allowed Pettine to see that the Falcons had all-time great returner Devin Hester back to return a missed kick. Instead of switching to a Hail Mary or simple kneel-down, Pettine tried the field goal again. And Hester nearly brought it back for what could have been a crippling touchdown. But the Browns were saved when punter Spencer Lanning slowed Hester down enough for guard Joel Bitonio to make the tackle. It was a tremendous effort by Bitonio, a smart play by Lanning and not Pettine’s wisest decision.

Game ball: At one point in his football life, Cundiff thought his career was over. Sunday he stood calm and poised in giving the Browns a heart-stopping 26-24 victory over Atlanta. Cundiff’s winning kick was never in doubt, and he gets the game ball over several others who could have gotten it -- including Hoyer (for the winning drive) and Crowell (two touchdowns).

What’s next: The Browns will play the Bills next weekend, but whether the game is in Buffalo or another locale remains to be seen as the Buffalo community continues to dig out from the relentless snowstorm that hit last week.
ATLANTA -- The Cleveland Browns worked all week to quell expectations for Josh Gordon, but Pro Bowl players tend to find their way onto the field.

Based on an unofficial snap count (stress: unofficial), Gordon played 25 of the Browns’ 36 offensive snaps in the first half Sunday against the Falcons, or 69.4 percent. During the week, Browns coach Mike Pettine stressed he didn't want to give Gordon too much, too soon, noting that getting into football shape takes time. Gordon missed the first 10 games of the season after failing a drug test.

Gordon isn't looking too rusty after one half of play, leading the team with 70 yards on four catches, taking a pair of screen passes for 22 and 19 yards. On the first series, Gordon played for three snaps, sat for two, then returned as a target on a deep passing attempt from Brian Hoyer.

Look for more of the same from Gordon in the second half -- a heavy workload in a crucial game that the Falcons led 14-13 at the half.
BEREA, Ohio -- It’s time flip the prism on the return of Josh Gordon on Sunday in Atlanta.

So far it’s been viewed from the on-field perspective, what Gordon can bring as a player. But Gordon has this opportunity in part because the Cleveland Browns stood by him.

There is validity in saying the Browns supported Gordon because of his immense talent. Had he been released when word of his year-long suspension first broke, someone would have signed him -- eventually.

The Browns easily could have gotten fed up and released Gordon, especially after his DUI arrest in the offseason that followed news of his failed drug test, which followed a 2013 season when he was suspended for the first two games. Hall of Famer Cris Carter was crying out that Gordon needed to be released.

The Browns never wavered, though. They challenged Gordon privately and publicly, but stood by him for months. He took part in training camp, played in preseason games and practiced with his teammates -- with the team well aware Gordon might lose a significant part, if not all, of the season while his case was being appealed.

They kept him around, tried to set up a program to help him.

At this point, Gordon owes not just something to himself and his team on his return, but also to his organization.

He conceded as much during his media gaggle Wednesday.

“There are a lot of people that I feel I owe that to: family members, friends, people that felt more embarrassed about it than the city of Cleveland,” he said. “As much as they are, the people close to me feel it harder than anybody. I feel as though I owe them, as well as the Browns.”

The way he’d like to repay the faith?

“By performing well,” Gordon said.

That means being himself. It was actually good to hear him say he wouldn’t put forth any extra effort or something inane like that. Because doing so implies he wasn’t doing his best in the past.

If Gordon goes out and is himself, he’ll be doing just fine (understatement alert).

And if he’s just fine, he’ll be remembering what the team did for him, and paying things forward.
BEREA, Ohio -- It would be remiss to let the week pass without recognizing one of the more athletic and impressive plays in recent Browns history -- even if it did come in a loss.

It just so happened to be made by the team’s punter, Spencer Lanning.

“I can tell you what, that was one of the better plays I’ve seen by a punter,” coach Mike Pettine said.

“Unbelievable play,” special teams coach Chris Tabor added.

They weren’t alone. Lanning’s teammates in the locker room were all pointing it out, with Ryan Seymour demanding it was worth a story.

He was right.

On fourth-and-17 from the Browns 35, Christian Yount lost control of a snap and sailed it well over Lanning’s head. Lanning stood at the 20, leaped and managed to get one hand on the wayward snap to slow it down. The ball landed at the 15.

He turned, got a good bounce and ran the ball down at the 13. After grabbing the ball Lanning turned and arced back upfield to his left -- against his kicking foot.

“My biggest fear when I opened up with the ball was I was going to get teed off on,” Lanning said. “I didn’t know if they were going to be blitzing or if they were going to be in holdup.

“When I rolled out there was a moment when I said, ‘Am I gong to throw it, no? Am I going to hit it left footed? No. So all right, well I’ll get around enough to hit it right-footed.’”

At the last second, he maneuvered the ball parallel to the yard-lines and kicked with his right foot at about the 13. The ball went under Jonathan Grimes' hands officially for 22 yards, but Lanning provided a how’d-he-do-that moment by punting right-footed, turning the ball, going left on the run -- and booting the ball 44 yards in the air.

“I didn’t think that it was humanly possible to be running full speed one direction, running left and kick it right,” Pettine said.

Lanning told Tabor on the sidelines: “That’s one of those things that are hard to practice.”

The play showed Lanning’s athletic ability, something that can be taken for granted with kickers and punters. Phil Dawson used to say he was a football player who kicked. Lanning, much like former punter Chris Gardocki, is an effective, athletic punter.

“I think that’s the thing about that young man that gets understated a little bit," Tabor said. “Everyone just always looks at numbers. He’s a crafty guy that plays well in weather games, and he never flinches.”

Lanning has a 38.8-yard net per kick this season, but teams are averaging just 6.6 yards per return on his punts -- sixth-lowest in the league. Thirty-three of his 57 punts have been downed inside the 20 or fair-caught.

And this kick he made on the run against Houston went out of bounds without a return.

“I hope I don’t ever have to do it again,” Lanning said. “But at least I know I can sort of pull it off.”
BEREA, Ohio -- Cleveland Browns rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert said a lingering foot injury kept him from getting any defensive snaps in the loss to Houston on Sunday.

"I was still battling a foot injury from the Bengals game, so I didn’t really plan on getting too much playing time," Gilbert said. "I could only run forward. I was struggling in practice trying to come in and out my breaks. K'Waun (Williams) was playing well also."

Gilbert said the undisclosed injury -- which sidelined him during the win against Cincinnati -- is getting better. But even had he been healthy it’s not clear if the eighth overall pick in the draft would have been ahead of Williams.

"We’re trying to put our best 11 out there," defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said.

O’Neil said Williams is playing as the team’s nickel back simply because he’s earned it. Which means an undrafted rookie is playing ahead of the Browns’ first first-round pick.

"I think you would struggle to find a corner that was drafted this past year playing at a higher level than K'Waun right now," O’Neil said. "It’s just hard to keep K’Waun off the field."

O’Neil was quick to add that Williams plays a different position than Gilbert. Williams plays inside in nickel situations against a slot receiver, Gilbert plays outside.

"I’m not down on Justin," O’Neil said passionately. "I’m just really high on K’Waun. If they let us play with 12 I’d play with 12."

However, the original plan when Gilbert was drafted was that he would eventually start opposite Joe Haden. That would allow the Browns to use Buster Skrine inside, with a Williams filling the dime role.

That the roles have changed doesn’t mean things aren’t working. As Gilbert said, "We have a winning record and that’s what matters to me."

But it does mean the first pick in the draft is not contributing like the first pick in the draft. Aside from a one-or-two-week stretch in training camp, he has struggled.

Gilbert said he is working on refining his technique, specifically using his hands to disrupt receivers. He said in college he could rely simply on athleticism. Did he have to worry about fundamentals/technique?

"Not a lot of the time, no," Gilbert said.

Williams, though, has played very well -- he ranks with receiver Taylor Gabriel as an undrafted free agent find.

"For Justin to get on the field more, he’s got to outplay Joe Haden or Buster Skrine," O’Neil said. "Right now, we feel our three best cornerbacks are K’Waun, Buster and Joe. (Gilbert’s) our fourth corner right now. That’s where he fits on the totem pole."
Nate Burleson spent training camp with the Cleveland Browns and spent a lot of time with Josh Gordon. Burleson was one of the Browns' last -- and toughest -- cuts.

Burleson is now with the NFL Network, and he offered an interesting perspective about Gordon's return this weekend -- and clearly disagreed that it might take time for Gordon to get back into things. In doing so he offered a twist on the "wreck this league" theme that Johnny Manziel set during the draft. Gordon, Burleson said, plans to "tear this league up."

“He told me, one, 'starting on practice this Wednesday, I’m going to outwork everybody on the field. I’m going to try to evoke a pride in Cleveland that can hopefully lead us to the playoffs,'" Burleson said. "He’s excited about coming back. ...

"When I was with the Cleveland Browns and he knew that suspension was coming, I said, 'What’s your plans? What are you going to do when you get back?' He said, 'I plan to lose 10-15 pounds and when I come back I’m going to tear this league up.'"

Burleson recognized, though, that Kyle Shanahan's offense is not the same as Norv Turner's, which relied more on downfield throws. That being said, Gordon's talent can prompt an offense to adjust things.

"They’re not going to be running and gunning throwing the ball up the sideline," Burleson said, "but definitely look for them to get Josh involved early, kind of to get his rhythm back. I’m excited just like everybody else to see if he can pick up where he left off.”
BEREA, Ohio -- The wackiness and unpredictably of the NFL was never more evident than in Weeks 10 and 11.

In week 10, the Cleveland Browns visited the Cincinnati Bengals and won handily, to the point that some were crying for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to be run out of the country.

A week later Cincinnati goes to one of the toughest places to play -- New Orleans -- and wins handily, with Dalton throwing three TD passes. The Browns follow a big win with a loss at home to Houston.

[+] EnlargeBrian Hoyer, J.J. Watt
David Richard/Associated PressCleveland's struggles against Houston after blowing out Cincinnati shows the unpredictability of the NFL.
It’s illogical, but it’s the NFL.

“Do you think Denver expected to go to St. Louis and get beat?” Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer said.

He then tried to explain it.

“Every team is good,” Hoyer said. “Every team has talent. Every team has good coaches. You have to be able -- like I talked about before -- to be consistent. That’s the biggest thing, and it’s hard to do. ... In this league, you have to bring it each and every Sunday and be at the top of your game because regardless of record. Regardless of who the opponent is. Everybody’s capable of winning on any Sunday in this league. That’s just the way it is.”

It’s just simple reality and it’s proven over and over again. Jacksonville has one win this season, and it came over the Browns after the Browns had a huge win at home over Pittsburgh. It “shouldn’t” have happened, just like the Bengals “shouldn’t” have bounced back to beat New Orleans. But it did.

“You can call it crazy,” defensive lineman Desmond Bryant said. “It’s the nature of this game, man. Every team in this league is hard to beat. If you’re not all the way on top of your game, then somebody can beat you. Any week in this league.”

The NFL is made up of three groups of teams.

There is the elite -- the New Englands, the Denvers, the Green Bays.

Then there is a large group in the middle of very competitive teams. Some have winning records, some do not, but the margin between them is so thin that if one team is five percent off its game and the other five percent above, a surprise will happen. The Browns are in this group -- the one that linebacker Paul Kruger said needs “to bring its A game every week.”

Then there are the bottom dwellers -- the Jaguars, the Raiders ... teams like that.

Until this season, the Browns were bottom-dweller regulars. They have moved up one level to the middle group, and have won 6-of-10 in doing so.

As disappointing as the last two losses have been, the odds that the Browns were going to go 7-0 in those games were not high. One or two losses are the norm. Even with them the Browns are 5-2 in the last seven.

That alone should be cause for optimism and belief as the season winds down.

The Browns will have their depth challenged, especially on defense, but they get Josh Gordon back on offense.

And they have a chance to compete for the AFC North and chase a playoff spot, which is a pretty large step forward given the hijinks of the past six seasons.
CLEVELAND -- Ben Tate was averaging 1.7 yards per carry the last five weeks, which would have gotten him cut from the Cleveland Browns eventually.

Getting cut on a Tuesday, in Week 12, reveals another layer.

Locked into the franchise's first playoff push since 2007, the Browns can't afford a malcontent, especially one who isn't producing. The first-year regime of Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer are vise-grip protective of the locker room, the culture, the "Play like a Brown" mantra. Farmer barely agreed to do a midseason sit-down with the media because he didn't want to distract from the team and the coach's voice. You think he wants a running back hinting publicly at unhappiness with the Browns' running back rotation while Cleveland sat at 6-3 atop the AFC North?

As Mike Singletary likes to say, "Can't do it!"

Complain. Cut. Next.

It's still a bit surprising, considering the erratic but explosive play of rookie backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, that the Browns didn't keep Tate as a reliable fallback plan. Tate doesn't fumble. He's dependable. He can catch passes out of the backfield.

He's just not explosive. The Browns need explosion. A reason for the wild rotational swings among the three backs is that the Browns were desperate for bigger gains. West, Crowell and Tate have carried the ball a combined 296 times and have two carries for more than 25 yards -- one apiece for the rookies.

Lack of explosion lends to expendability.

The Browns face at least marginal risk with the Tate release. Crowell has shown fumbling problems and West found the inactive list in Week 6 after he wasn't doing the little things required of the position.

But the upside is clear with these two. Plus, the Browns can increase Glenn Winston's workload if they choose. They like his development.

If Tate was an elite player, he'd still be on the roster. If he didn't pose the threat of locker-room issues, he'd still be on the roster, too.

He had no advantage in either area, making the Browns' decision easy.