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Browns arrive as contenders with rout of Steelers; more Snap Judgments

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we wrap up a revealing Week 6 in the NFL ...

This is going to take some getting used to, the reality that it’s mid-October and the Cleveland Browns are relevant. And for real.

That wasn’t just another win the resurgent Browns registered over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday afternoon at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium. That was a total domination, to the tune of 31-10. It was an emphatic statement of arrival for a team that is gaining legitimacy and confidence by the week.

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Six weeks into the regular season, the Browns (3-2) are over .500 for the first time, riding a two-game winning streak and starting to look like a team that will be in every game it plays this season. And the best is yet to come for Mike Pettine’s resilient and resourceful team.

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Browns fans may rightfully think it doesn’t get any better than blowing out the Steelers by three touchdowns, scoring 31 unanswered points in the process to knock off Ben Roethlisberger for just the second time in 20 tries. But Sunday’s rout may be just the start of things this season in Cleveland. The Browns' ceiling rises with each impressive display.

The Browns’ next three opponents are Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay, a trio of last-place clubs that are a combined 1-16 so far in 2014. By Week 10, the long-downtrodden Browns could easily be the toast of the NFL at 6-2 and preparing to travel to defending AFC North champion Cincinnati with first place on the line in the division. The matchup against the Bengals is the only time Cleveland will face a club that currently has a winning record between now and Week 14, a span of seven games. By then, the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2002 could be well within its sights.

Imagine that. It may still be hard to fathom where this season might be headed in Cleveland, but the picture is getting clearer by the week. This was supposed to be Johnny Manziel’s team by now, with the rookie quarterback showing us where the Browns’ future lies. Instead it remains Brian Hoyer’s moment, and there’s seemingly history to be made every time Cleveland takes the field.

Two Sundays ago at Tennessee, it was the Browns earning their first road win in more than a year and doing it in record-breaking style, mounting the biggest road comeback in league history (25 points). This week, on a picture-perfect day in downtown Cleveland, the Browns handed the Steelers (3-3) their worst defeat in the series since a 51-0 drubbing in 1989. Since trailing 27-3 at halftime to Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in Week 1, Cleveland has outscored the Steelers 55-13 -- and that margin was 55-6 until Pittsburgh scored a garbage-time touchdown with fewer than three minutes remaining on Sunday.

The Browns had played nothing but close games entering Week 6, but after a sluggish first quarter they finally put things together against Pittsburgh, taking control of the game thanks to a flurry of 21 second-quarter points. After trailing the Titans 28-3 in the first half last week, the Browns went on a 57-3 run over the span of their next five-plus quarters, overwhelming both Tennessee and Pittsburgh in the process. Cleveland has now scored at least 21 points in each of its first five games, the second-longest such streak to start a season in franchise history. The Browns' two losses have been by a combined five points, to Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

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The Cleveland-area native Hoyer is not only one of the best stories in the NFL this season, but also he’s in position to become one of the league’s biggest winners this offseason. Hoyer is a free-agent-to-be in 2015, and he’s going to get paid well by someone in the near future, if not the Browns. His strong play is earning him great leverage in Cleveland, and if it continues to build, the Browns face the decision of whether to offer him starter’s money and keep Manziel on the bench. Offering Manziel in a trade is another scenario that no longer seems far-fetched.

Hoyer was only 8-of-17 passing against the Steelers, but he got the absolute most out of the plays he made, throwing for 217 yards and a touchdown (a 51-yard connection with tight end Jordan Cameron) without an interception. His biggest completions went for 51, 31, 31, 24 and 17 yards, and he’s 6-2 as Cleveland’s starter since the start of 2013, unheard-of success for a Browns team that has been a disaster zone for quarterbacks since re-entering the league as a 1999 expansion effort.

The regular season’s final 11 games will likely decide the Browns' quarterback drama, but for now the fun continues in northeast Ohio. The Browns are making their mark in a tough AFC North, and there’s still plenty of room to climb. As the weeks unfold, a season that few saw coming keeps getting better in Cleveland.

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• Pittsburgh isn't used to hearing its team referred to as the last-place Steelers, but it’s well-deserved at the moment. Mike Tomlin’s team looked lifeless for much of the game in Cleveland, and even when it dominated the Browns statistically in the first quarter, two long Steelers drives produced just a Shaun Suisham field goal and a 3-0 lead.

Ben Roethlisberger still owns the Browns over the course of his career, but his 18-2 mark against them can’t hide the fact that he never laid a glove on Cleveland in this game. He was 21-of-42 for 228 yards, with a touchdown and an interception, but the Browns made Big Ben look out of sync and frustrated at times.

You still can’t get a handle on what you’re going to get from this Steelers team from quarter to quarter, let alone week to week. Pittsburgh has alternated wins and losses in each of the season’s six weeks, but its inability to put four quality quarters together has been maddening. Are the Steelers the team that took apart Carolina in the second half in Charlotte or the team that struggled to beat Jacksonville and let one slip away late against Tampa Bay?

I know two consecutive 8-8 seasons in 2012-13 were deemed unacceptable in Pittsburgh, but maybe mediocrity is exactly where this franchise now resides.

Report: Browns center Alex Mack has broken leg, out for season

​• It wasn’t all sunshine and high-fives in Cleveland for the Browns, however. The loss of starting center Alex Mack to a likely broken left leg is a potentially crushing blow. Mack was replaced by guard John Greco, but Mack is a Pro Bowl talent and one of Cleveland’s team leaders. The sixth-year veteran had never missed a snap in his career before he was hurt, participating in 5,429 consecutive plays entering Sunday.

Mack was hurt at the bottom of a pile, and the injury shook up his teammates. "It was pretty emotional, for me especially," Browns left tackle Joe Thomas told "We have played every snap together for six years." The Browns' running game has been a team strength this year and produced three more rushing touchdowns against the Steelers, including two by Ben Tate. That gives Cleveland three games this season with two or more scores on the ground, the same number of times the Browns accomplished that feat over the span of 2011-13.

• I thought it was the visiting Packers who were supposed to struggle in the oppressive Florida heat late in the game, so why was it that Miami wound up calling a timeout that Green Bay really needed at one of the most pivotal fourth-quarter moments of the Dolphins’ 27-24 loss at Sun Life Stadium?

With the Packers trailing 24-20 and facing a 4th-and-10 at the Miami 48 with 1:07 remaining, the Dolphins seemingly had Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers exactly where they wanted them. Rodgers had just been sacked and fumbled on the previous play, with Packers guard T.J. Lang alertly falling on the loose ball. But Green Bay was out of timeouts and was hurrying to get a play call in when Miami surprisingly used its second timeout, buying the Packers a breather.

Rodgers made the Dolphins pay for that favor, hitting receiver Jordy Nelson for 18 yards on fourth down, keeping the Packers alive. Five plays later, after Rodgers had executed an exquisite Dan Marino-like fake spike and hit receiver Davante Adams for 12 more yards down to the Miami four-yard line, the Dolphins obliged Green Bay again, calling their third and final timeout with six seconds remaining.

I’m not sure what Miami head coach Joe Philbin was thinking, but if he was trying to give his defense a rest and make sure it was set for whatever Rodgers threw at it, that strategy failed miserably. Rodgers hit tight end Andrew Quarless in the right front corner of the end zone for the four-yard touchdown with three seconds left -- on a bullet of a pass that left Miami linebacker Phillip Wheeler badly exposed in coverage -- and the Packers escaped with their third consecutive victory to claim a share of first place with Detroit in the NFC North at 4-2.

As for the Dolphins, they slipped to 2-3, and Miami still can’t get any momentum generated in a season that shapes up as do-or-die for Philbin’s job security. Sunday’s loss, in which Miami gave up 10 points in the final four minutes, certainly won’t help. And while we’re at it, there were sightings of both the Good Ryan Tannehill (two touchdown passes in the second half) and the Bad Ryan Tannehill (two interceptions in the first half) against Green Bay. The level of play a highly motivated Tannehill flashed against the Raiders in London two weeks ago was not replicated in South Florida.

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Nugent's missed field goal in OT sends Panthers, Bengals to anticlimactic tie

​​• It’s difficult to still consider the Bengals defense elite after Cincinnati tied visiting Carolina 37-37 in the highest-scoring overtime game that ended in a tie in NFL history. The Bengals (3-1-1) gave up just 33 points combined during their 3-0 start but have now surrendered 80 points in the span of seven days.

The Bengals said they wanted to answer their 43-17 loss in Foxboro with a resounding performance that would prove last Monday night was an exception, not the rule. But they didn’t accomplish that, especially in light of Cincinnati surrendering 27 points to Carolina after halftime. Second-year running back Giovani Bernard's big game was a welcome sight for the Bengals: 137 yards on 18 carries, including an 89-yard touchdown gallop that is the longest run in the NFL this season.

But quarterback Andy Dalton threw a pair of interceptions to go with his two touchdowns, and Cincinnati kicker Mike Nugent gagged away the game with his miss from 36 yards at the end of overtime. The Bengals rolled up a whopping 513 yards on offense against Carolina, and while they remain in first place in the AFC North, the tie clearly felt like an opportunity lost.

• Bengals kicker Mike Nugent: Missed kick 'probably worst ball I've ever hit'

• The tie had to play somewhat better for Carolina (3-2-1), and not just because the Panthers were the road team and got the benefit of that Nugent field goal miss on the game’s final play. Cam Newton looked like Cam Newton again for the Panthers, posing a threat with his legs and not just his arm.

Newton entered the game with just 14 rushes for 42 yards this season coming off of spring ankle surgery, but he cut loose against the Bengals, running a team-leading 17 times for 107 yards, with a 12-yard touchdown (his first on the ground in nine games). It was the most rushes for a quarterback in almost three years in the NFL (think the Tim Tebow era in Denver). And Newton’s passing was stout as well; he connected on 29-of-46 attempts for 284 yards with a pair of touchdowns and just one interception.

When Newton poses that kind of dual-purpose threat, the Panthers offense is much more diverse and dangerous.

• Well, now Terry and Kim Pegula are in the club. They’re definitely the Bills owners. Because losing to the Patriots is a very suitable rite of initiation in Buffalo, given how often it happens in this AFC East series. The honeymoon may not be over for the Pegulas, but at least they have a better idea of what they’ve gotten themselves into now.

Not even the emotional high of having the Bills’ new ownership family on hand Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium could reverse the curse of Buffalo’s failures against New England. Veteran quarterback Kyle Orton couldn’t reproduce his heroics of last week in Detroit, when he moved to 1-0 as the Bills starter by rallying his team from a 14-0 first-half deficit.

Buffalo lost 37-22 to the defensively depleted Patriots, but the Bills had their share of opportunities to make a game of it. Buffalo turned the ball over three times in the first half, saw Orton take five sacks and amassed more than 100 yards in penalties.

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​• Typical Patriots. The Bills got to throw themselves a pre-game party of sorts, but New England got the win. And a very satisfying win it was. The Pats overcame considerable adversity during the game, losing linebacker Jerod Mayo and running back Stevan Ridley to reportedly serious knee injuries. But how many times have we seen that before? The next man up thing is more than a meaningless mantra in New England.

​And this just in: Tom Brady is still pretty good. As if his showing last Monday night against Cincinnati wasn’t enough to quell the nonsense about him being on the decline, Brady went out and conducted a clinic against a pretty good Bills defense in the second half: 15-of-17 for 274 yards and three touchdowns. He finished with four touchdowns and 352 yards passing in the game, without an interception.

With no one else in the AFC East playing winning football through six weeks, guess who’s back in their ultra-familiar first-place spot at 4-2? The Patriots, correct. Give yourself a prize.

Ravens QB Flacco sets NFL record with five TDs in first 16:03 of game

​• Down two games to none, the Orioles could have used a little of the excess offense the Ravens didn’t need in embarrassing Tampa Bay 48-17 on Sunday in Raymond James Stadium. What got into Joe Flacco? The Ravens' quarterback didn’t just strafe the Bucs defense for five touchdowns -- he did it in the first 16:03 of the game, becoming the fastest to that gaudy single-game mark since the 1970 merger. And he beat the old record by more than 12 minutes, or almost a full quarter.

Baltimore has already won two road games this season, the same number it won in all of 2013. The Ravens offense is so much better with Steve Smith in the lineup. Smith’s longest reception of 2013 was 44 yards, but in just six games for 4-2 Baltimore, he has already scored on bombs of 80, 61 and 56 yards, the final of the three coming against the Bucs on Sunday.

Yeah, I think he’s got something left in the tank, Carolina.

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• Did I read that right? Baltimore went for a 64-yard field goal attempt at the end of the first half, with a comfortable 38-0 lead in hand? Justin Tucker’s try was blocked, but I guess Ravens coach John Harbaugh wanted to let his kicker stretch his leg a bit. Or he needed the points for his fantasy team.

Buccaneers continue to crumble in Lovie Smith's debut season

​• At this rate, the Bucs are going to look back on the Greg Schiano era with fondness and nostalgia. Tampa Bay trailed Baltimore 38-0 at halftime, and according to ESPN, that was the largest deficit by a home team "since before World War II."

I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten to drop a World War II reference into Snap Judgments, so there’s that.

Buccaneers first-year coach Lovie Smith said he continues to see improvement in his team, but I don’t think he could prove his case in court. Tampa Bay lost 56-14 at Atlanta three weeks ago, but at least that was on the road. To lay an egg like the Bucs did at home against the Ravens is even more inexcusable.

Tampa Bay takes its bye next weekend, but its Week 8 home game against Minnesota just got a little more pressurized. Smith's hiring was widely praised at the time, but the Bucs' 1-5 start no doubt has people second-guessing the decision.

• Gritty 31-17 win for the Broncos in the Meadowlands, and no one came up bigger for the visitors than reserve running back Ronnie Hillman, who churned out a career-best 100 yards rushing on 24 carries in place of the injured Montee Ball (groin).

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​The Broncos knew the Jets' defensive front was daring them to run and over-loading in pass coverage, so Denver ran, producing a season-best 138 yards in that department. Peyton Manning had three touchdown passes, but it was valuable for the Broncos to prove they can run effectively when necessary.

Denver’s schedule is about to turn very challenging, with a home game against the 49ers next Sunday before a short-week AFC West showdown against visiting San Diego the following Thursday. A trip to New England for the annual Manning-versus-Brady glamor matchup looms in Week 9.

• I have to think the Lions really love that they blew up the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis. Detroit had won twice there in a 20-year span (1994-2013) but is 1-0 in the Vikings’ new temporary outdoor home at TCF Bank Stadium.

The Lions didn’t even need Calvin Johnson or Reggie Bush to beat Minnesota 17-3. Detroit’s top-ranked defense is legit. The Lions picked off rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater three times and sacked him at will, collecting eight in the game, including 2.5 by ZiggyAnsah.

Unbelievably, Matt Prater caught whatever has been ailing Detroit kickers this season. The ex-Bronco missed two of his three attempts in his Lions debut, continuing Detroit’s almost comically bad season on that front. Prater was good from 52 yards just before halftime, but missed from 51 and 44 in the game. That makes 10 missed field goal attempts in six games for the Lions, who are 0-of-7 from 40-49 yards. Jason Hanson kicked 21 seasons in Detroit and never had more than nine misses in any one season.

• Can you imagine the toxic atmosphere in Tennessee if Jacksonville kicker Josh Scobee had beaten the Titans on that last-second 55-yard field try? Sammie Hill blocked the kick to preserve Tennessee’s 16-14 win, snapping a four-game losing streak. But after the Titans blew a 25-point lead at home last week to Cleveland, things would have gotten real ugly, real fast for first-year Tennessee head coach Ken Whisenhunt with another late-game meltdown.

The Jaguars remain winless (0-6) and could not repeat the script of their first victory of the 2013 season, when they won at Tennessee after an 0-8 start. When Titans free safety Michael Griffin failed to secure the onside kick and Jacksonville successfully executed a few plays before Scobee’s attempt, history looked ready to repeat itself in Nashville.

• We got so much wrong about Dallas this offseason that it’s almost difficult to know where to start. But it’s clear the Cowboys are dramatically better on defense than almost anyone imagined. And that’s a credit to Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who is doing it with smoke, mirrors and whatever else he has up his sleeve.

Cowboys put past behind them in beating up Seahawks, moving to 5-1

​Dallas beat Seattle 30-23, but that score doesn’t tell the real story. Special teams cost the Cowboys 14 points, and another Seattle field goal came via a short field that resulted from a Dallas turnover on offense. The Seahawks were almost shut down offensively, with Russell Wilson throwing for a meager 126 yards and running for only 12 on two carries. He threw an interception, was sacked twice and never looked remotely comfortable.

Marshawn Lynch was in Least Mode against Dallas. He gained 61 yards on 10 rushes, but more than half of them came on one carry. Percy Harvin couldn’t get any open space to work in, and no Seahawks receiver finished with more than three catches or more than 62 yards.

This was a thorough beatdown of the defending Super Bowl champions by Dallas, and it brought the Cowboys to 5-1 for the first time since 2007. It’d be just like the Cowboys of the past to now get too happy with themselves and suffer a big letdown in the weeks ahead. But I don’t see it happening to this Dallas team, which seems more focused and driven than any in recent memory.

The Cowboys are now really well-positioned to make an even bigger statement, with three consecutive home games on tap (against the Giants, Redskins and Cardinals), followed by a trip to London to play the hapless Jaguars.

I never thought I’d say this, but Jerry Jones had a pretty good handle on his team’s potential. The Cowboys' role as underdogs has run its course.

• Seattle is reminding us why defending a Super Bowl title is so difficult. There’s a reason there have been only two repeat champions in the past two decades. Opponents line up to take their best shot at the champ, and the Seahawks are not immune to that phenomenon.

Seattle’s loss at San Diego in Week 2 was one thing, but a home loss -- the first against a non-division foe since 2011 -- is going to take the concern to a new level in the Pacific Northwest. The Seahawks lost their aura of invincibility at CenturyLink Field on Sunday against the red-hot and improved Cowboys, and that’s going to embolden every other Seattle opponent for the rest of the year.

I still like the Seahawks’ chances to win the NFC West, but they’re in a dog fight now. And the frustration is starting to show. Seattle is learning the reality of success at the highest level. The second attempt to scale the mountain almost always proves more difficult than the first.

• Raiders rookie quarterback Derek Carr showed his team something of lasting value with that near-miss 31-28 loss at home against AFC West-co-leading San Diego (5-1). Carr didn’t deliver an upset victory, but his strong right arm does give Oakland fans reason for hope. He’s not intimidated by the fact the Raiders (0-5) haven’t won in the past, and he’s not afraid to make a mistake.

Carr is the best competitor the Raiders have had at quarterback since Rich Gannon retired, and that won’t be the last four-touchdown day he has this season. Oakland looked like a legitimate offense on Sunday, with Carr pressing the issue downfield and the tandem of Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew combining for 114 yards rushing.

Raiders interim head coach Tony Sparano at least injected life into Oakland’s sideline and got his guys playing hard against the Chargers in a way Dennis Allen rarely managed. The Raiders didn’t have quite enough firepower to knock off San Diego, but they made it interesting and served notice that perhaps the season won’t finish the same way it started.