Rob Chudzinski’s first season as an NFL head coach has been brutal, and there’s no doubt the Browns are eager to cross the finish line and begin regrouping.
“It’s been a long year,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “We haven’t been able to match the expectations we set for ourselves. It hasn’t been the year we wanted it to be. Everybody needs a time to settle down and get their minds right and think about how we come about this thing next year.”
But Chudzinski and the Browns (4-11) also believe they still have incentive to stun the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8) when the two AFC North foes meet for the regular-season finale at 1 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Field. A win would not only spoil the Steelers’ slim chances of earning a wild-card playoff berth, but it would also allow the Browns to defeat their three divisional opponents — the Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals (10-5) and Baltimore Ravens (8-7) — for the first time in the same season.
“Coach [Chudzinski] brought it to our attention,” defensive captain and inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “I didn’t think it was true, but obviously he’s done some research. We definitely want to be able to [win our division games]. It’s a good start. With everything that’s happened throughout this season, if we can go out and prove we can beat every team in our division, that’s the way you get to the playoffs — winning your division. It’s a great step moving forward.”
Of course, a large faction of the fan base would rather see the Browns lose, so they would have better position at the top of May’s NFL Draft. NFLDraftScout.com analyst Dane Brugler said he has run dozens of scenarios, and according to his calculations, the highest the Browns could pick is third overall and the lowest is eighth.
Players and coaches laugh at the thought of them actually caring about the outcome of a game affecting the draft.
“There’s not one guy in any professional sports, any competitive sports that’s going to say they’re going to lose the game on purpose for a draft pick or for whatever matter,” Jackson said. “So with the competitive juices in us, we want to win the game. We don’t try to position ourselves for a draft pick.”
Added Chudzinski: “I don’t think of anything else other than winning and giving ourselves, and doing the things to give ourselves, the best chance to win.”
Winning would also save the Browns from setting a record for the most consecutive losses to end a season with seven. Chudzinski is not expected to be fired after just one year, but finishing the season with 10 losses in the last 11 games would likely increase the pressure he feels next season.
“[Ending the season on a positive note is] something that we really want to do,” Chudzinski said. “I know the guys are committed to doing that, to finish with that taste in your mouth, to finish the season strong. We’ve had a great week of preparation, and the guys are ready to go.”
The Browns haven’t won since Nov. 3, when they snapped an 11-game skid in their series with the Ravens via a 24-18 victory. The win gave them a record of 4-5, but coming off a bye, they squandered a 13-0 lead against the Bengals by allowing 31 points in the second quarter and fell 41-20. The Steelers handled the Browns 27-11 the following week to essentially eliminate them from postseason contention.
“That was the time of the year where everything was right there in front of us,” Haden said. “We didn’t step up and win that game [against the Bengals] like we should’ve. I don’t know if it was the turning point, but the key point for this whole team, every position, is just to finish. When we’ve got a lead, we’ve got to know how to close it out. We’ve been in every game, and we’ve got to figure out a way as a team to win the close ones. We’re not getting blown out of the water. We’re not down like 21 or 30, and we’ve got to finish those games.”
Added Jackson: “We’re so close, but yet that’s the NFL. The good teams are able to make those plays and make those key stops to separate yourself. Right now, with the foundation that was created with the players, I think it’s a good start, but it does no good if we don’t go out and leave on a good note. If we go out and lay an egg this Sunday, we’re going to think about that all offseason.”
Earning a sliver of redemption won’t be easy because it never is against the Steelers. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 16-1 against the Browns, who are 5-25 against the Steelers since 1999, including one postseason showdown. The Steelers are also 5-0 in regular-season finales against the Browns during the expansion era, outscoring them a combined 137-35.
This is also a must-win game for the Steelers. To make the playoffs, they need to beat the Browns and catch the following breaks: a loss from the Ravens on the road against the Bengals, a loss from the Miami Dolphins at home against the New York Jets and a loss from the San Diego Chargers at home against the Kansas City Chiefs.
“It’s a personal focus for me,” center Alex Mack said of ruining the Steelers’ chances of sneaking into the postseason. “I don’t get to go to the playoffs, and I get to share that love.”
Could a rare upset over the Steelers give the Browns momentum that would carry over into next season?
That’s about the only thing the Browns can hope for at this point.
“I think it does,” Jackson said. “Every guy we have in this locker room, you’re not promised tomorrow, you’re not promised next year to be on this team. When you play well, you gain a little bit more respect with the guys that we have in the building. So a lot of guys have a lot to build for regardless of [us being eliminated from] the playoffs. If you want to still be around and you want to be part of the solution and not the problem, it’s going to be imperative that every guy is focused this week and we come out with a W.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.