Browns in unfamiliar place - first

BEREA, Ohio (AP) The Browns took an unexpected trip during their three-day weekend. They climbed into first-place in the AFC North - alone.

It's been 20 years since Cleveland was atop its division this late in the season. Not since 1994, when Bill Clinton was in the White House, ''Forrest Gump'' was opening his box of chocolates in theaters and the franchise's surprising move to Baltimore was still a year away, have the Browns looked down in the standings.

They're enjoying the view.

''First place is first place,'' linebacker Karlos Dansby said. ''You can't go nowhere from there but down.''

Yes, the Browns (6-3) are feeling good about themselves as they prepare for Sunday's home game against the Houston Texans. But as he has done all season, coach Mike Pettine is preaching perspective. He's trying to keep his players at a neutral level, knowing the highs can quickly be followed by lows.

Before Tuesday's practice, which was observed by 75 military members and their families in honor of Veteran's Day, Pettine spoke to the Browns about not letting their new haughty status blur any goals.

''There are no awards. There's no prize for being 6-3,'' Pettine said. ''The only thing that's done for us is our games are meaningful now. You still have to have the ability to put that one in a box and move onto the next one.''

This is new territory for the Browns, who have lost at least 11 games in each of the past six seasons and haven't been to the playoffs since 2002.

While it's their reality now, Pettine has confidence his leaders, players like Dansby, safety Donte Whitner and linebacker Paul Kruger, who won a Super Bowl title with Baltimore, will help keep his message alive in the weeks ahead.

''I think this is a mature group that can handle it,'' Pettine said. ''It showed today in how they showed up and how they've worked in practice.''

The Browns learned a lesson about the hazards of success earlier this season.

Following a blowout win over Pittsburgh, the Browns came out flat the following week and were beaten by a then winless Jacksonville team they probably should have handled. In the days leading up to that game, Pettine warned about it being a trap - and sure enough the Browns were ensnared.

Looking back, Pettine may have made a mistake.

''We might have overdone it as a staff just talking about trap-games and all that,'' he said. ''The vast majority of our guys I think are very mature, very professional. To me, it comes out when they speak. You can hear it. They're saying the right things, and I think they truly believe it. This will be a big test for us.''

Kruger said Pettine's messages have been on point during his first season as Cleveland's coach. Pettine has pushed the right buttons, knowing when to motivate and when to back off. He's given the Browns freedom to dance in the locker room following a comeback win in Tennessee and delivered the right amount of criticism after a loss.

With the Browns on top, Pettine is keeping his players in check.

''You have to be able to handle success,'' Kruger said, ''and coach Pettine has done a better job than any coach I've even been around helping us understand that and making an emphasis on it, knowing how to handle a loss and bounce back and know how to handle a win - not overreact.''

It's also why Pettine has been mentioned as a possible coach of the year candidate, a notion he takes in typical, self-effacing stride.

''Part of the overreaction,'' he said, drawing laughter. ''I'm smart enough to know that I'm a part of it, but it still falls back to me on the staff we were able to put together and the players we were able to bring in. Everybody is pulling the rope in the same direction. Since I'm at the head of it, I can see why that talk is there, but there's no `Nine-Game Coach of the Year.' It's at the end of the year.

''To me, those are all team awards when that happens, so I'm no different. It's on to the next one.''

NOTES: Browns RB Ben Tate, who will be facing his former team this week, said sharing the workload with rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, hasn't been satisfying. ''I'd be lying if I said `Yeah,''' he said. ''It's not, but whatever the organization thinks is best for the team, then that's what we're going to do.'' Tate is part of Cleveland's three-back rotation. It's not what he expected when he signed as a free agent in March, but Tate, who has 342 yards and four TDs, doesn't want to complain. ''We're winning,'' he said. ''We're 6-3 and in first place, that's all that really matters.'' ... S Tashaun Gipson (headaches) and TE Jordan Cameron (concussion) were the most notable players to miss practice. Gipson is being evaluated for a concussion.

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