On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns begin their second round of AFC North divisional play, starting on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals before finishing the season at home against the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Rookie quarterback Colt McCoy has been named the Browns starter for the final three games of the season, which should allow the front office and coaching staff to get a feel for how the first-year signal caller deals with the cold weather and performs against all three division opponents.
NFL schedule-makers couldn't have done a better job of setting up a final audition for McCoy as he makes a bid to be Cleveland's permanent starting quarterback heading into 2011.
Division games in the AFC North are always tough, and even the lowly 2-11 Bengals will provide a stern test for a Browns team that has long struggled to compete within the division. Winning at Paul Brown Stadium won't be easy, as Cincinnati is a team loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, even if it isn't reflected in the Bengals' record.
While the chances may be slim, the Browns do have an opportunity to close the season with three division wins, which would net Cleveland an 8-8 record and a 4-2 mark in the division.
The Browns have been competitive all season and the difference between wins and losses has often come down to play at the quarterback position. Here are five reasons why Colt McCoy can have the success needed to lead the Browns to victory against the Bengals in Round 2 of the 2010 Battle of Ohio.
Veteran Browns players may have laughed at Colt McCoy when he confidently stepped into the huddle for the first time, barking out assignments like a seasoned veteran while wearing the guise of a wet-behind-the-ears rookie.
However, grins of mockery soon turned to smiles of hope, as McCoy proved the ability to lead the offense on game day. He quickly gained the trust of veteran players and the loyalty of the entire team.
McCoy has shown the ability to read defenses at the NFL level, calling plays at the line of scrimmage and putting the offense in position to move the football. Everyone along the offensive front knows that when McCoy audibles to a different play or makes a change in protection, he is making the right call.
McCoy also learns well from his game-day experiences. While he has made mistakes, as any rookie is prone to do, he rarely makes the same mistake twice.
McCoy's accuracy and vision also mean that the offense is less likely to suffer a drive-killing turnover, and his mobility extends plays, enabling things to happen even when the play break down.
Perhaps most importantly, McCoy has learned early on that sometimes, simply throwing the ball away is not the worst play.
With McCoy at the helm, we should see a confident Browns team on Sunday, one that expects to win and won't settle for anything short of victory.
Often in the NFL, a young quarterback's best friend is a strong running game, which the Browns have behind one of the league's strongest backs in Peyton Hillis.
Hillis is a dual-threat back who can make the Bengals pay, both on the ground and through the air.
Hillis gives the Browns the ability to grind out tough yards and move the chains, taking a lot of pressure off of young McCoy. Hillis' tremendous receiving ability also gives McCoy a solid outlet on passing downs when receivers are covered downfield.
The Bengals know that the offense of the Browns runs through Hillis, and the Cincinnati defense will be geared up to stop him.
McCoy can expect to see a lot of defenders in the box, which should open things up for the passing game. With linebackers and safeties creeping close to the line, McCoy has the vision and accuracy to find the mismatch in the secondary and deliver the ball downfield for large gains.
One of the best ways to derail a young quarterback is to apply pressure with a strong pass rush. Fortunately for McCoy and the Browns, a strong pass rush is something that the Bengals sorely lack.
The Bengals are currently tied for last in the league with a paltry 18 sacks on the season.
Five of those sacks have come from rookie defensive end Carlos Dunlap, with four of those coming in the past three games. No one else on the team has more than two sacks on the season.
The Browns should have little trouble negating the Cincinnati pass rush, as Dunlap is the only real sack threat on the Bengals' roster. The secondary of the Bengals is full of talent, but the defensive schemes lack creativity and the Browns should be able to buy plenty of time for McCoy to read through his progressions and find an open receiver.
McCoy's mobility, both in and out of the pocket, only adds to the probability that a Cincinnati pass rush will be ineffective.
The Cincinnati Bengals have a talented young secondary, but it is a unit that has been stricken with injuries throughout the 2010 season.
Cincinnati defensive backs Chris Crocker, Brandon Ghee, Adam Jones, Rico Murray, Chinedum Ndukwe, Gibril Wilson and Morgan Trent have all landed on injured reserve this year.
Cornerbacks Jonathan Wade and Johnathan Joseph are also listed on the injury report heading into Sunday's game. Joseph is listed as probable, while it is doubtful that Wade will play.
The pass defense of the Bengals is solid, ranking 15th in the NFL while allowing only 223 yards per game. However, the rash of injuries in the secondary will make it much easier on Colt McCoy to find weaknesses in the defense and deliver the football to his receivers.
While the Browns are looking to gain focus under the leadership of Colt McCoy, the Cincinnati Bengals are a team that has fallen out of focus weeks ago.
Players have been blaming each other for on-field mistakes and now the players are even calling out the coaching staff in order to shift the blame for a 10-game losing streak that equals the worst single-season stretch in franchise history.
Outspoken receiver Terrell Owens lashed out against the Bengals' front office and coaching staff recently on the television show he co-hosts with fellow receiver Chad Ochocinco.
With no one in the Bengals organization willing to accept the blame for the poor performance on the field, can Cincinnati really focus on beating anybody but themselves?
Even when Cincinnati has been in position to win this season, the Bengals have somehow found a way to collapse. Should such a situation arise on Sunday, expect McCoy and the Browns to take full advantage and drive a dagger into the heart of a Bengals team that seems willing to roll over for any opponent.