BEREA — The Browns have nine wins for the first time since 2002. They’ve won six straight at Cleveland Browns Stadium to tie the mark for most home wins in franchise history. They pitched their first shutout in two years Sunday, 8-0 over the Buffalo Bills in a blizzard.
They’re on pace to have a 3,500-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard running back. They’re expected to have at least two Pro Bowlers when the rosters are announced at 4 p.m. today.
They are tied with the Steelers atop the AFC North and can lock up a playoff spot with a win Sunday in Cincinnati (5-9).
They can’t afford to bask in the glory.
Just as quickly as a win over the Bengals would clinch the postseason, a loss would put it in jeopardy as the Browns would no longer control their destiny. They would then need a Tennessee
(8-6) loss in one of its final two games (vs. the Jets, at Indianapolis), or a pair of Steelers losses (at St. Louis, at Baltimore) combined with a Browns win over the 49ers.
“It’s a huge team win, one that I think everyone in town and in the organization appreciates because it makes us 9-5,” coach Romeo Crennel said Monday. “But the season is not over. We’ve got a tough game coming up against Cincinnati on the road.
“We are not going to be satisfied with where we are. We can still get a lot done and we plan to get a lot done.”
The Browns hold the sixth spot in the AFC and would play at San Diego if the season ended today. The Browns could move as high as the third seed and host Jacksonville, Tennessee or Pittsburgh on Jan. 5 or 6 in the opening round of the playoffs. To do that, the Browns would need to win the division, which would require them to finish ahead of the Steelers, who own the tiebreaker after sweeping the Browns.
They could also travel to Pittsburgh in the first round, or finish out of the playoffs despite a 10-6 record.
“Our playoff game is Cincinnati,” linebacker Willie McGinest said Sunday.
The Browns beat the Bengals 51-45 in Week 2, breaking a five-game skid in the Battle of Ohio. A loss Sunday would cost the Browns dearly, leaving them on the short side of possible tiebreakers with Tennessee and Jacksonville.
Crennel simplified all the mathematical possibilities: If they win the rest of their games, they’ll be in the playoffs.
“We’ve talked about it for several weeks,” he said. “Let’s just win. If we win and take care of our job and business, then we’ll get to where we want to be. Really, it hasn’t changed. We’re just a little bit closer.”
Crennel wasn’t trying to diminish the importance of nine wins, especially following six- and four-win seasons in his first two years. But as unlikely as a winning season seemed in the preseason, the Browns can’t afford to look back now.
“As soon as you start to feel like it is over, then you’ll get beat,” Crennel said. “We want to win these next two games.”
The defense could be the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place. It’s been ranked 32nd in the NFL 10 of 14 weeks, including eight straight heading into the Bills game, but has shown improvement in the last month. That progress was capped with the shutout.
“The team understands the position that we’re in,” Crennel said. “I think that there is more focus, more intensity from everybody on the team to try to do what’s right, to try to make the right choices and right decisions, so that we can give the team the best chance to win.”
General manager Phil Savage said the shutout in the snow was just another step in the maturity of a young team.
“The most exciting thing was we won an unusual game,” he said. “It completes a little bit of the picture of the Browns. We can win a high-scoring game, we can win a low-scoring game. We’ve had a lot of experiences this year. Being ahead, being behind, playing lousy for a stretch, then coming back and playing good. There are only a few situations out there the team hasn’t experienced.
“So I think they have a lot of confidence. Despite it being nerve-racking for everyone watching, it’s a good thing.”
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The Browns can clinch a playoff berth Sunday with:
1. A win.
2. A Tennessee loss.
3. A tie and a Tennessee tie.