I know I wasn’t the only one. After Mike Nugent connected on that 54-yard field goal Thursday night, it appeared as if the Cincinnati Bengals would beat the Miami Dolphins and the Bengals’ hold on the top of the AFC North would only strengthen. I went to bed.
Then, I woke up to find: Dolphins 22, Bengals 20.
What does this have to do with the Cleveland Browns’ 4:25 p.m. Sunday home game against the Baltimore Ravens?
It’s a must-win game.
When Brian Hoyer’s knee was healthy and the Browns were winning football games, we allowed the thought of winning this conference enter our collective minds. The Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t the same powerhouse teams as year’s past. The Browns have a chance. Then, the Hoyer injury happened and Brandon Weeden returned for two forgettable games.
Last Sunday, Jason Campbell became the third quarterback to start for the Browns in this season’s first eight games. He’s coming off a solid game in hostile Kansas City. Almost 300 yards passing. Two touchdown passes. No turnovers. He was a Davone Bess fumble away from having a chance to beat the undefeated Chiefs.
Campbell’s performance coupled with Thursday night’s result, all hope is not lost.
The Bengals still sit atop the AFC North at 6-3 followed by the Ravens at 3-4, the Browns at 3-5 and the Steelers at 2-5. The Browns have played two conference games. They beat the Bengals and lost to the Ravens. Cleveland still has this Sunday’s game against Baltimore, Nov. 17 at Cincinnati and two with Pittsburgh Nov. 24 (on the road) and Dec. 29 (at home).
It’s a tall task for this Browns team on its third quarterback and lack of running game. Maybe I’m delusional, but the goal is in front of them: Win these remaining conference games.
“This is a tough division,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “The AFC North, multiple Super Bowl winners, multiple playoff teams, everybody has been in the playoffs. We’ve been the kid brother for a while, and we need to stand up in this division and do the things that we need to do.”
For all the troubles the Browns have had since 1999, winning within the AFC North is No. 1A to the No. 1 problem, finding a franchise quarterback. Yet this year there is no superior team, as evident by the Browns beating the division-leading Bengals 17-6 on Sept. 29.
How can the Browns’ win these conference games? It’s a simple formula of getting the ball into the hands of Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron on offense and continuing to play solid on defense. Last Sunday, the Browns’ second-half defense allowed the offense to have a chance. The Browns sacked Chiefs’ quarterback Alex Smith six times, kept Jamal Charles to less than 100 yards rushing and, although he was nursing an injured groin, contained their top wide receiver, Dwayne Bowe, to one catch for seven yards. That’s all you can ask.
Entering this week, Baltimore is coming off a bye. The Ravens’ offense is setting any scoring records and the defense doesn’t feature the same nastiness as it has in year’s past.
Running back Ray Rice, who has torched the Browns in the past, is averaging 2.8 yards per carry. Joe Flacco has completed 59.5 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. Torrey Smith, the team’s No. 1 wide out, only has one touchdown reception.
In the first meeting Sept. 15, the Browns’ 6-0 halftime lead was wiped out in the second half by two Ravens’ touchdowns. One can’t help but think if the outcome would have gone in Cleveland’s favor if the Browns had a capable quarterback behind center? Weeden was 21-for-33 passing for 227 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He was sacked five times. But the lasting image from that game is Weeden missing his throw to a wide-open Chris Ogbonnaya down the sideline.
In this rematch, the Browns will not have to play Weeden and will be able to play Gordon. Is that a good enough combination to lead the Browns to a win over the Ravens for the first time in 11 tries?
In order to change the culture in Cleveland, winning Sunday’s game will go a long way to helping turn the tide. Despite the Browns’ 3-5 record, it’s November. It’s Cleveland and it’s a meaningful, must-win game.