BEREA — Romeo Crennel let the cat out of the bag Wednesday.
“I don’t know if you noticed or not, but there’s a big game this week — in Cleveland,” he said.
The Browns coach had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek as he looked out on a larger-than-normal media contingent. Northeast Ohio has been paying attention and knows the Browns (8-5) are in the thick of the playoff chase and host a pivotal game Sunday against the Buffalo Bills (7-6).
The Browns have been in playoff contention for more than a month, but Crennel refused to look ahead and cautioned his players to focus on the game at hand. That strategy still applies, but the next game could push the Browns into the playoffs. A Browns win combined with a Tennessee loss and a Denver loss or tie would clinch a berth.
“We know what’s at stake, Buffalo knows what’s at stake,” center Hank Fraley said. “It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere.”
“Deep down I know guys have excitement,” receiver Joe Jurevicius said. “But I don’t think we’re to the point where we can let it out. We’ve got to finish the job and we’re still trying to get better placement within the playoffs themselves.”
If the season ended today, the Browns would be the sixth seed and travel to Pittsburgh for the first round. A loss wouldn’t knock them out, but would hurt them in possible tiebreakers.
A Bills loss, however, would all but eliminate them from playoff contention.
“We generally just talk about the next game,” Bills coach Dick Jauron said on a conference call. “But obviously as we get down near the end of the season, it’s pretty clear. We try to be as matter-of-fact with the players as we can. We tell them the consequences of what the next game are, win and lose. Right now it gets pretty clear.”
With that reality staring him in the face, Crennel opened up a bit. He didn’t say the word “playoffs” but alluded to them on a couple of occasions.
“From an organization standpoint, we feel good about where we are,” he said. “We know it’s not over. There’s still a lot of football to play.
“This just happens to be the next one. Whatever else happens after that, we’ll take it. We’re excited about being in this position. It’s better than the alternative.”
Browns fans are well-acquainted with the alternative. The Browns went 4-12 last year and have just one winning season (and playoff appearance, 2002) since 1999.
“The biggest thing is we know we have a shot,” receiver Braylon Edwards said. “These last three games are much different from last year’s last three games.
“We’re very focused. We’re trying to continue to take one game at a time, but we know what’s on the horizon if we do well. We’re real excited.”
Jurevicius, who turns 33 on Dec. 23, is a 10-year veteran, three-time Super Bowl participant and team captain. He feels it’s his responsibility to monitor the locker room to make sure the younger players aren’t getting carried away.
“I want the guys to feel the excitement,” he said. “A lot of guys deserve this opportunity we have in front of us.
“But if we don’t work, if we don’t do things the right way and cross the t’s and dot the i’s this week, then we’re going to have a tough time with Buffalo, because they’re right inside this race, too.”
That’s another element that adds to the excitement. The Bills haven’t been to the playoffs since 1999, were expected to be a bottom-feeder in the AFC and have Northeast Ohio natives Donte Whitner (safety, Cleveland) and Lee Evans (receiver, Bedford).
“It’s make-or-break for each team,” Whitner said.
This is the biggest home game since William Green ran the Browns into the playoffs in the season finale in 2002. But the Browns went just 3-5 at home that year. This season, the Browns have built a true home-field advantage with five straight wins after an opening loss.
Whitner and Evans grew up Browns fans and know what the atmosphere will be like Sunday. So does Jurevicius, who signed with Cleveland with the dream of playing for his hometown team in the playoffs.
“My job is to keep the guys focused in here during the work week, then when the city of Cleveland gets out there on Sunday and gets behind the Brownies, then you kind of let it roll,” he said. “That’s when we’ll see everything come to the top.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.