Browns vs Ravens: Cleveland Knocking on Door of the AFC North

Darin Pike@darinpikeContributor ISeptember 28, 2012

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 27:  Quarterback Brandon Weeden #3 of the Cleveland Browns hands the ball off to running back Trent Richardson #33 against the Baltimore Ravens during the NFL Game at M&T Bank Stadium on September 27, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns entered their Week 4 matchup in Maryland hoping to narrow the gap on the Baltimore Ravens. They dropped an exciting 23-16 game but demonstrated they are closing in on the AFC North.

Mike Holmgren has been working on finding a winning combination but is yet to find the success he had in Green Bay and Seattle. But the addition of Trent Richardson and hope surrounding Brandon Weeden should have fans excited about the future.

They just need to weather some growing pains in 2012.

I'm a firm believer that good teams find a way to win close games. The Browns just aren't there yet, having lost three of their four games by a touchdown or less. But there are plenty of examples in recent seasons where teams make a big leap.

The 2010 San Francisco 49ers lost five close games on their way to a 6-10 record. A few adjustments and a new coaching staff led them to the NFC Championship Game a season later.

The Browns may not be looking at a coaching change, but two seasons of nonperformance under second-year coach Pat Shurmur could prompt Holmgren to make a new hire...or perhaps even step back onto the field himself.

Cleveland is showing positive signs on offense and defense. They still have some work to do but have a good balance of young players and experience. 

Their starting offensive line, for example, is young but offers a combined 16 years of starting experience. They have one of the most exciting rookies of 2012 in Richardson, while Weeden is showing promise mixed in with his rookie mistakes.

Perhaps the biggest throw Weeden made against the Ravens was a 63-yard interception return for a touchdown. He failed to look off Cary Williams on the third-down pass attempt, who was lurking around the first-down marker.

He didn't get much help in the game, as several passes were dropped. None were more critical than the one Greg Little couldn't bring down in the end zone.

Cleveland had to settle for a field goal. A catch could have left the Browns kicking to tie the score at the end of the game instead of needing a touchdown.

Weeden later made several nice throws while driving the team to the Baltimore 18-yard line on Cleveland's final drive. He leaned on Benjamin Watson for two of the completions but made an inexcusable mistake on the final play.

The Browns were gifted a final Hail Mary attempt when Paul Kruger was flagged for a rather light unnecessary roughness penalty. It looked more like a soccer player taking a dive than an NFL offensive lineman being knocked over, but the result was one final opportunity for the Browns.

Weeden did the inexcusable and threw the ball out of the end zone.

The game was full of great plays and head-scratchers for Cleveland, but the team has a solid mix of talent.

The Browns won't make much noise in 2012, but they will be a factor in the AFC North in 2013.