BEREA: The Browns returned to work Monday after their bye and found themselves revitalized not only because of the break, but also as a result of being in the midst of a playoff hunt with seven regular-season games remaining.
Not even practicing in the cold could ruin the mood.
“It makes it easy getting up in the morning,” inside linebacker and defensive captain D’Qwell Jackson said after practice. “It makes everything taste a little better. Those nicks and bruises, they don’t hurt as much. We’re in a good place right now, and I want to keep it that way.”
Jackson and his girlfriend saw Motown: the Musical on Broadway Wednesday night and spent the next few days in New York City before catching a train back to his home in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. Jackson boarded a plane to Northeast Ohio on Sunday as the Cincinnati Bengals faced the Baltimore Ravens. He landed in time to see the Ravens triumph 20-17 after the Bengals forced overtime with a Hail Mary pass for a touchdown.
The Browns’ position in the AFC North was strengthened as a result. The Browns (4-5) will be just a half game behind the division-leading Bengals (6-4) in the standings if they can prevail Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals have a bye the following week, meaning the Browns could move into a first-place tie if they capture wins Sunday and then Nov. 24 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-6).
“This time of year you have to take care of your business,” Jackson said. “We’re right in the middle of the pack. We haven’t played a meaningful game around here in a long time at this time, so it’s definitely going to be one of those weeks when I focus in and make sure the young guys know how important these next few weeks are going to be.”
Because of its significant playoff implications, the upcoming Battle of Ohio in Cincinnati will be the most important game for the Browns since 2007. That year, coach Rob Chudzinski was the Browns’ offensive coordinator when they went 10-6 but missed the playoffs. A 19-14 loss to the Bengals on the road in Week 16 haunted the Browns along with Chudzinski, who called 48 passing plays for quarterback Derek Anderson despite him struggling in windy conditions.
“It was a game that we needed to win and were not able to win,” Chudzinski said. “Certainly that was a disappointment for us and for me, and one of those games that you’ll always remember.
“I think every experience is a learning experience. That particular day we did what we felt like and what I felt like we needed to do to win in that case. Sometimes they work. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
The Browns are 2-1 in the division this season. They triumphed 17-6 over the Bengals on Sept. 29 in Cleveland and avenged a Sept. 15 loss to the Ravens (4-5) by defeating them 24-18 on Nov. 3, snapping a three-game losing streak entering their recent bye. In the event two teams from the same division finish with the same record, the first two tiebreakers the NFL uses to determine the champion are head-to-head results and records within the division.
In other words, the showdown Sunday in Cincinnati should have a playoff-like atmosphere.
“It’s going to be highly intense,” Jackson said. “It’s a good feeling to have. So we’ll see who rises to the top in terms of playmakers, in terms of who can fight through all the outside noise and focus in on what the responsibility is on Sunday.”
The Browns believe they’re ready to rise to the occasion in a big moment.
“I think very ready,” tight end Jordan Cameron said. “I think guys are tired of that culture and that mindset of not being relevant in November. It’s time, and we’ve just got to keep this rolling.”
Added Jackson: “You talk to the Cleveland community, I’m pretty sure they’ll tell you it’s time. And I’m telling you personally — it’s time. We definitely earned the right to be in this position.”
It won’t be easy, though. The Bengals are on a two-game losing streak, but they suffered both losses in overtime on the road. They’re 4-0 at home this season.
The Browns are 1-3 on the road and 3-2 at home this season. They’ve won only one road game in each of the past two seasons, going 4-4 and 3-5 at home in 2012 and 2011, respectively. In 2010, they went 3-5 at home and 2-6 on the road. No other NFL team has won fewer road games during that span.
“We’ve just got to start faster,” Jackson said. “I thought these last few games we’ve done a better job with that. It’s just a matter of now it’s time to really kick into overdrive. Now we’re looking at the second part of the season. Who are we? Now you’ll be able to see what type of team we have and that takes winning on the road.”
“Right now is where the games that we play are going to tell the rest of the world, the community, what type of team we have, whether we’re going to be a team that not really can find their way or we’re going to be a team that every week we can build off wins and continue to get better and put a string of wins together.”
The Browns are not only on the heels of the Bengals in their division, but they’re also in the mix for the AFC’s second wild-card spot. Heading into the Monday night game, the New York Jets (5-4) were in the driver’s seat for the final wild-card berth.
Still, it’s relatively early, and Chudzinski is preaching, “Win the one.” It’s another way to stress the importance of focusing on the next game instead of worrying about everything else.
“We talk about our goals, but more specifically and most of the time, we talk about what we need to do right here and now because that’s the thing you can control,” Chudzinski said. “All of the other things, people talk about all of the different scenarios and you start to get caught up in those things and you miss out on the present. So we’re really focusing on the present.”
Jackson doesn’t want the Browns to talk about making the playoffs, but he wants them to act as if they belong in the postseason.
“I want them to think that way,” he said. “I want them to work that way. Walk it. Prepare like it. Play like it. But let it come. Let the chips fall where they may because we’re too young to keep talking about it and talking about it because we’ve still got to go out and play the game. Once we get to that point, then I’ll be the first in line to talk about it.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.