Can head coach Rob Chudzinski keep the Cleveland Browns playing hard through this five-game free fall? Will they finish the season by losing 10 of their last 11 games?
These are the questions that will be answered this week when the Browns hit the road to take on the New York Jets.
The Browns have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, and now they are simply playing to stop streaks. They are playing to stop a five-game losing streak and playing to stop a streak of three straight games in which they gave away a fourth-quarter lead.
The front office will be watching closely to see who competes and who mails it in. It can’t be easy to get up for a Jets team that is 6-8 and also has been eliminated from playoff contention. The Jets are playing out the string, having lost four of their last five games, a stretch during which they averaged just 13.4 points per matchup.
They are, however, 5-2 at home and defend their home field pretty well. Their passing defense is ranked 26th in the NFL, so the Browns should have an opportunity to move the ball through the air.
On offense, the Jets have the ninth-best rushing offense, while the Browns have the eighth-best rushing defense.
This will be a clash of powers in the trenches.
AFC North standings
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Who wins the AFC North will boil down to the final two games of the season.
It is as simple as this: The Ravens now control their own destiny, despite the fact that the Bengals have a 9-5 record and Baltimore is 8-6. The two teams will face off in a Week 17 showdown.
If the Ravens win out, which would include the win over Cincinnati in Week 17, they would both finish with 10-6 records.
With Baltimore and Cincinnati having split their head-to-head matchups this season, divisional record will be the deciding factor in which team is the AFC North winner. Baltimore would have a 4-2 record in the division while the Bengals would be 2-4.
The reigning Super Bowl champs then would be back in the dance.
RB Willis McGahee (Concussion)—Did not play Sunday
G John Greco (Knee)—Did not play Sunday
CB Joe Haden (Hip)—Left the game Sunday
The biggest area of concern for the Browns is cornerback Joe Haden and his hip pointer. The Browns may decide to hold him out for the remaining two games of the season.
This would be the right move. While the secondary struggled on Sunday and will continue to struggle without him, there is no need to risk further injury to their top defender. Plus, this would allow the younger players like Leon McFadden and Jordan Poyer to get valuable game action.
Running back Willis McGahee might be better served taking a seat for the rest of the year as well. He was not effective at all in a Cleveland uniform, and that has opened the door for an intriguing second-year player, Edwin Baker.
Baker ran with purpose and a burst last Sunday, and I would like to see what he could do against the Jets No. 3-ranked run defense. In just eight carries last week, he had 38 yards and a touchdown.
What Must Improve
Closing out games
It is nearly impossible to choke away fourth-quarter leads in three straight games, but the Browns have managed to do it. They play well enough for 45 minutes to beat anyone in the NFL. It’s the final 15 minutes that have become the bugaboo.
So how do you teach a team to close out games? That is what Rob Chudzinski is going to have to figure out. He has one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, and sooner or later the Browns have to take the next step.
Obviously, more consistent quarterback play would help considerably, but the problem is deeper than that. Cleveland's defense needs to get big stops down the stretch if they want to be considered “elite.”
When the defense has played well, the offense cannot hold up its end of the bargain and put the game out of reach. If the offense is struggling to move the football, it is up to the special teams to make a big play or bust a return to spark the offense.
Complementary football from all three phases is how teams take the next step and learn to close out games. Until they start doing that, the Browns will continue to learn these lessons the hard way.
Better balance offensively
I am not sure at what point in his career that offensive coordinator Norv Turner decided he hated running the football, but his reluctance to do so is getting a little ridiculous.
Last week, against the worst run defense in the NFL, he called 16 running plays. The Browns were averaging 4.75 yards per carry on the plays that Turner called, but he still insisted on abandoning the run.
Despite quarterback Jason Campbell’s struggles, Turner dialed up pass play after pass play. This is curious especially since the Browns were leading or trailing by just one score on nine of the Cleveland offense's 11 drives.
This week they face a defensive juggernaut when it comes to the run. Only two teams stop running backs better than the Jets, and that is why the Browns need to commit carries early in the football game.
They have to make the Jets respect the fact that they will not only run the ball up the middle but test the edges as well. They need to get creative and force New York linebackers and DBs to play a step or two closer to the line of scrimmage.
This will open up things in the passing game. The Jets have the 26th-rated pass defense in the NFL for a reason.
Superstars need to show up
I use the term “superstars” very loosely when referring to wide receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron. While both are having phenomenal years and rewriting the franchise's record books, it is weeks like last week that show they have still not fully arrived.
Those two cannot combine for four catches and 30 yards until making plays on a final desperation drive against a prevent defense. They need to be difference-makers, and they need to start making a difference earlier in games.
Some of that falls on Campbell, but Gordon was still targeted 10 times in the game. He seemed hesitant to make a play over the middle and needs to help out his quarterback even if some passes aren't the most accurate of throws.
This also falls on Turner, the offensive coordinator. When you near halftime and you have zero production from your only two offensive weapons, you need to do some things to get the ball into their hands.
He should have called some screens and quick slants to get the ball to Gordon and Cameron, to get them into a rhythm. These two impact players must be established early on against the Jets.
*All quotes and observations were gathered first hand unless otherwise noted.