Coming off their mini-bye, the Cleveland Browns will have a five game stretch before their actual bye where they have a chance to make a significant move in the standings reflected by getting healthier as well as simpler improving into the team many believe they can be.
As the Browns sat idle on Sunday getting some badly needed rest, the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Baltimore Ravens making both teams 5-2 with a share of first place in the AFC North one full game ahead of the Browns. Despite some scuffling by the Browns in games, they are right in the the thick of it with an opportunity to get some critical wins while also simply getting better.
The Browns will face off against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals for the first time this season as well as the New England Patriots, Detroit Lions and finish up with the Baltimore Ravens before their bye week. Three of those are within the division, the best way to make a move in the standings.
Every game is winnable, but only the Lions stand out as a pushover. The rest will come down to the Browns getting healthy and recharged plus making some necessary tweaks on both sides of the ball to help on third down.
If it's up to Baker Mayfield, he will play this week. That may not be how the team or his own doctors view the situation, so it may come down to the wire if Mayfield can play against the Steelers or if he'll have to wait for the Bengals the following week.
IF the Browns do need to roll out with Keenum against the Steelers, he should come with reinforcements including running back Nick Chubb, right tackle Jack Conklin, and both Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry are expected to go.
The positions that stand to benefit the most from this rest are the offensive and defensive lines. Jedrick Wills getting healthier is great as is Conklin, but on the interior get to recharge, J.C. Tretter gets an extra week of rest.
On the defensive line, both Myles Garrrett and Jadeveon Clowney were dealing with multiple injuries that could stand to improve. Malik McDowell. After staring out the season hot, his effectiveness has flattened. His path into the NFL, coming out of prison, may be partly responsible. He wasn't able to train like a high performance athlete. When he was brought in by the Browns, he worked incredibly hard, gaining weight, trying to reclaim strength he lost.
It shouldn't be a huge surprise that the NFL has caught up with him, but this time to recharge may allow him to get him closer to the level he demonstrated at the start of the year. Malik Jackson and Jordan Elliott are experiencing similar performance issues, so the Browns really need this group to step up to give them a bigger threat across the defensive line.
Between tactical adjustments, improved health and the schedule they face, this is when the Browns need to find a way to make this five game stretch count. Should they find a way to win four of the five, they would be an 8-4 team heading into their bye week, which is pretty ideal. 7-5 isn't a bad result, but the final fives games could be challenging if they need them to win to get into the playoff games. The hope for the Browns is that is when the team starts playing their best football of the year, enabling them to a formidable playoff team.
For now, it starts with the Steelers, but these next five games for the Browns are where they need to make strides toward becoming a contender if they have championship aspirations.