With another dismal season ending in more disarray, the Cleveland Browns can't win the AFC North title. However, they can help decide who does.
CLEVELAND -- With another dismal season ending in more disarray, the Cleveland Browns can't win the AFC North title.
However, they can help decide who does.
Over the next two weeks, the Browns (5-9), who have long fought for respect and relevancy inside their rugged division, will get a chance to directly impact the order of finish at the top along with playoff seedings when they host rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
It's a consolation prize of sorts for the Browns, possibly headed for a coaching change if Eric Mangini can't pull off a second straight magical late-season escape act. Mangini's future could be resting on his team's performance in the next two games, a final flurry to impress team president Mike Holmgren, who will weigh more than wins and losses when he determines the coach's fate.
At least one Cleveland coach feels Holmgren should realize that the Browns, who went 5-11 last season and have been plagued by key injuries this season, are vastly improved.
"If they break it up," said defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, "that would be dumb as hell."
The Ravens (10-4) and Steelers (10-4) could help Holmgren decide.
Baltimore, coming off an impressive win over New Orleans last week, is tied with Pittsburgh for first place with the Steelers holding the tiebreaker if the teams win out. As long as Baltimore beats Cleveland Sunday, the Ravens will clinch a playoff spot for the third straight season.
It's all in their hands.
"It doesn't get any better," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "From day one, I've always talked about this journey we've been on, and now we find ourselves at a great place where we control our own destiny. We don't need anybody to do this, to do that. All we have to do is go to Cleveland and win."
The Browns have dropped five straight to the Ravens, who won the Sept. 26 meeting 24-17. Cleveland grabbed a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter before giving up 10 points in the final 9:13, when Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw his third touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin and Billy Cundiff kicked a 49-yard field goal.
Baltimore felt fortunate to win. Its tenacious defense was shredded for 144 yards by Browns running back Peyton Hillis, whose breakout performance forever endeared him to Cleveland fans and put him on the NFL radar after two seasons of anonymity in Denver.
Hillis found holes not thought to exist in Baltimore's defense.
They may be tougher to locate this time.
"It won't happen again," Lewis said, dismissing Hillis' day.
The Ravens' snarling, emotional leader wasn't about to give Hillis an ounce of credit this week.
"A blind cat will find a meal every once in a while," he said. "We definitely aren't coming in there to give him [Hillis] over 100 yards again. We're definitely coming in to play a very physical football game. And let him understand that my son could've run through the holes that we gave him in Baltimore, and we just don't do that. When we get back to Cleveland this weekend, it'll definitely be a different outcome."
Baltimore could be facing a different Hillis. He missed practice on Wednesday with a sore left knee, but the powerplug back, who has accounted for nearly 40 percent of Cleveland's offense, is expected to play.
For the Browns' sake, he'd better.
Cleveland's offense has been sputtering, scoring just 36 points in the last three weeks The Browns have gone just 6 of 32 on third-down conversions, a problem that rookie quarterback Colt McCoy inherited after taking the starter's job from Jake Delhomme.
During practice, the Browns made third down a No. 1 priority.
"We're just inconsistent," said McCoy, who is 2-4 as a starter. "We make some plays, we do some things right and then at times something happens. Whether we miss a block, miss a throw, or miss a catch, catch the ball behind the sticks, there are just so many things we can do a better job of collectively as a group.
"We've got a lot of work to do with that."
This will be McCoy's baptism against Baltimore's defense, players he has watched on TV for years. He knows all about Lewis and Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs. Now, he'll get to know them up close and personally.
McCoy has shown pinpoint accuracy as a pro -- he's completed 66 percent of his passes -- and a knack for making plays. He has also had some moments of uncertainty in the pocket.
The Ravens prey upon the indecisive.
Lewis has studied McCoy's tendencies, and believe it or not, came away impressed.
"You definitely see the rookie mistakes, but you also see the potential," he said. "He really moves around with the ball way better than people might think. His delivery is great on the ball. To see his development, you're really seeing him slow down and really trying to read the game.
"It'll be a challenge because he's unpredictable. But we'll definitely go in there and try to pressure."
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