Are the Browns playoff contenders in tough AFC North?
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Are the Browns playoff contenders in tough AFC North?
Tuesday November 11th, 2014

Four, five, four, five, five, four.

Those are the Cleveland Browns' win totals over the past six seasons, respectively. And a 10-win 2007 campaign came only after a 19-45 four-year stretch from '03-06.

So while it does nothing to promise them a playoff spot, getting to six wins this season -- as the Browns did with their Thursday night domination of the Bengals -- is an accomplishment in itself.

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"This is not a fluke," Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden told The MMQB's Peter King. "Absolutely not a fluke. It’s not a surprise. I know everybody out there is saying, ‘Surprising Browns. Surprising Browns. Surprising Browns.’ Go ahead and think that; we don’t care. We’re not shying away from anyone. This Cleveland Browns team is different. We grind and we work and we believe."

Anyone not buying into the Browns should have been rethinking that stance after Week 10. In a critical intra-division matchup, Cleveland mopped the floor with the homestanding Bengals, 24-3. DT Phil Taylor's return provided a boost, and the Browns still have reinforcements on the way, like suspended WR Josh Gordon and (hopefully) injured TE Jordan Cameron.

Not bad for a team heading to Week 11 in first place.

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"We understand that the teams that make it to the playoffs and win and advance are the teams that get hot in November and get hot at the right time," said safety Donte Whitner, one of Cleveland's critical offseason pickups. "We just want to get hot at the right time, and [Thursday] was a good start to that."

The Browns end the year with two of their final three games vs. AFC North foes: Cincinnati in Week 15, at Baltimore in Week 17. They may need to win both to lock up the division, assuming they can keep winning games between now and then.

Considering where this franchise has been for the past handful of seasons, simply having a shot is a legitimate step forward.

More of the best and worst from Week 10:

First Down: Beast Mode.

All of the "When so-and-so gets X number of carries/completions/receptions, his team wins" stats tend to be pretty overblown. But here we go anyway ... Marshawn Lynch has had 20 or more carries in four of Seattle's nine games this season. Those are the only four games in which he has scored a rushing touchdown, and the Seahawks are 4-0.

Week 10 Superlatives: Lynch runs all over Giants; Big Ben looks out of sync

Sunday, he hit that mark again (21 carries) and posted 140 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-17 win over the Giants. By the fourth quarter, New York's defenders seemed disinterested in tackling Lynch; when they tried earlier, Lynch ran through them as he did in trucking linebacker Jameel McClain.

Of course, the Seahawks can win when Lynch doesn't hit that 20-carry mark -- they've done so twice this season and it also happened in last year's Super Bowl. But there also is little doubt that keeping Lynch involved is crucial.

"Like I said before, Marshawn Lynch is our engine," wide receiver Doug Baldwin said, via the Associated Press. "Everything runs through him."

Fourth Down: Cam Newton.

The Panthers' QB almost single-handedly stole a Week 5 tie for his team against the Bengals, throwing for 284 yards and rushing for another 107. Since then, this season has devolved into a nightmare.

A very public indignity occurred for Newton and the Panthers on Monday: a 45-21 loss to Philadelphia that was not as close as the final score indicates. Newton topped 300 yards passing, for the first time this season, but reached that height by piling up garbage-time stats.

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When it really mattered, he was battered into submission by Philadelphia's defense, to the tune of four turnovers (three interceptions, one fumble) and nine -- count 'em, nine -- sacks. At his best Monday, Newton looked hobbled and sluggish, unable to pick up yards with his feet or evade the pass rush.

His train wreck of an offensive line deserves much of the blame. But Newton has not looked himself since Vontaze Burfict twisted his ankle in that Carolina-Cincinnati tie. Why Ron Rivera left Newton on the field for all 60 minutes Monday is anyone's guess.

First Down: Brent Grimes vs. Calvin Johnson.

All eyes were on Johnson as he returned from injury, and Megatron did not disappoint. He caught seven passes for 113 yards in Detroit's win, the best coming on a leaping 49-yard touchdown catch in front of Grimes.

But the Dolphins' cornerback more than held his own when pitted against Johnson, even with that touchdown taken into account. Grimes later robbed Johnson of another TD by pulling off a remarkable one-handed interception at the goal line.

Johnson drew Grimes in coverage on eight of the 15 passes thrown his way, according to Pro Football Focus. The results: Four Johnson catches, one touchdown, one interception and one Grimes pass break-up.

Fourth Down: Carson Palmer's luck.

"I'm not going to lie," Palmer said Monday, less than 24 hours after tearing his ACL, "I cried like a baby last night."

Who could blame him? For the second time in his career, Palmer suffered a knee injury mere days after signing a contract extension. It first happened back in 2005 when he was a member of the Bengals, his leg crumpling under a low hit by Pittsburgh's Kimo Von Oelhoffen during a playoff game. And it happened again Sunday on a non-contact play, two days removed from Palmer and the Cardinals agreeing to a three-year extension.

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Worse yet, Arizona is in the midst of a potentially special season. Now at 8-1, the Cardinals currently own the NFC's best record and a two-game lead in the NFC West. The Super Bowl will be played at their home stadium, too.

If the Cardinals get there, however, Palmer will be nothing more than a cheerleader.

First Down: Kansas City stealing a road win.

Even the so-called elite teams have to pull off a smash-and-grab job from time to time. When a team starts 2-3, as the Chiefs did this season, those steals can become even more of a necessity. So go ahead and circle Kansas City's 17-13 victory in Buffalo on Sunday, just in case Andy Reid's team grabs a wild-card spot or leapfrogs Denver for the AFC West. Because it had no business winning that game.

The Chiefs faced a 13-3 deficit after three quarters that should have been more -- heck, it would have been more had Buffalo RB Bryce Brown not fumbled at the two-inch line. A long Jamaal Charles TD run on 4th-and-1 and a Leodis McKelvin turnover on a punt return swung the pendulum in the Chiefs' favor, somehow. They finished the comeback from there.


Fourth Down: Mel Tucker.

Bears head coach Marc Trestman was more than 30 minutes late to his Monday press conference, sparking speculation that Tucker, his defensive coordinator, might have been served his walking papers.

"There will not be any [coaching changes] at this time," Trestman announced once he finally arrived. "I think we have excellent coaches here."

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Anyone who has seen this Bears team the past two weeks might beg to differ.

Coming off a bye, on national television against their biggest rival, in what amounted to a must-win game, the Bears surrendered 55 points on Sunday night. The resulting 41-point loss to Green Bay followed up a 51-23 beatdown at New England's hands that planted Trestman firmly on the hot seat. Someone, soon, will have to be the scapegoat if this team does not turn it around.

Tucker is the the obvious candidate. Only Jacksonville has allowed more points this season (282 to 277) ... and the Jaguars have played 10 games to the Bears' nine.

First Down: Odell Beckham Jr.

The 2014 rookie class has hit the ground running, from Sammy Watkins to Kelvin Benjamin and right on down the line. Beckham is the latest revelation, now with 15 catches and 264 yards in two games since Victor Cruz suffered a season-ending injury. The No. 12 overall pick certainly caught Richard Sherman's attention Sunday.

"Beckham is a great player," Sherman said, per the New York Post, after Beckham's 108-yard showing. "So they had to depend on him and take risks and take shots in games like this. He was able to get one earlier, which was a great play by him."

The "one" to which Sherman referred was a 44-yard deep ball from Eli Manning to Beckham -- the rookie ran right past Sherman for the catch. Two plays later, Beckham made a sensational grab against Marcus Burley for 26 yards, setting up an Andre Williams TD.

Beckham is just getting started.

Fourth Down: New England's AFC East challengers.

One month ago, the Patriots were a disappointing 3-2 and visited Buffalo with the division lead on the line. Now? They look like they might cruise to another East title.

New England won that Week 6 game versus the Bills, part of an ongoing five-game win streak that's bolstered its record to 7-2. Meanwhile, both Buffalo and Miami fell to 5-4 on Sunday in heartbreaking fashion -- the Bills on the short end of that aforementioned Chiefs rally; the Dolphins a late-game loser to Detroit, an outcome made doubly bad by the season-ending injury to offensive tackle Branden Albert.

The Bills and Dolphins will turn around and play in Miami on Thursday, so one of the Patriots' closest contenders will be 5-5 (barring a tie) and all but out of the race by Friday morning.

First Down: Tony Romo and Dez Bryant.

Nothing much new here. With the Cowboys fighting a two-game losing skid, Romo and Bryant hooked up for 158 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-17 London win over the Jaguars.

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That is a game Dallas should have won, but there were lingering questions about Romo's health entering the game -- he had missed the Cowboys' previous outing after suffering a Week 8 back injury. A cloud of negative chatter also swirled around Bryant, as seems to so often happen whenever the subject of his contract arises. Bryant also admitted that he was one of several Cowboys out past curfew on Friday night, making him an even easier target.

Once the game started, though, Bryant and Romo served reminder for how good they are when on the field together.

Fourth Down: The Steelers overlooking opponents.

The Buccaneers and the Jets have a combined three wins between them. Two have come against the Steelers.

Even the worst teams in the league have enough talent to pull off an upset here and there when favored squads fail to show up mentally. That the Steelers have now allowed it to happen twice might cost them a playoff spot in the long run.

Similar circumstances occurred in 2013. Pittsburgh missed out on the postseason by one game, making it rather easy to look back on lethargic efforts against four-win Oakland and five-win Minnesota. Back in 2012, another non-playoff year, the Steelers again lost to Oakland as well as the 5-11 Browns and 6-10 Titans.

Sunday's effort in a 20-13 loss was arguably the worst of all. Fresh off three straight wins in which its passing offense had been near unstoppable, Pittsburgh struggled to find any consistency. Ben Roethlisberger tossed a pair of interceptions -- to a Jets secondary with one pick prior to Week 10 -- and Antonio Brown fumbled twice, while the defense allowed Michael Vick and Co. some big plays.

Just ugly all around. And really unacceptable for a team chasing the AFC North title.

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