There are games throughout the National Football League season that have greater impact than others. The Browns will play such a game Sunday in Jacksonville against the Jaguars.
The team has reached a point in its season where the result of one game can mean the difference between another plunge to the bottom of the AFC North and adding another chapter in a comeback story no one anticipated.
Given their performances in the last four games, the Browns' game against the Jaguars qualifies as a must-win. This team has managed in the last month or so to play some very good football. So good, in fact, it approaches the Jags game with a confidence it hasn't had for way too many seasons.
The next five games for Cleveland are winnable and the key is this one. Win it and the next four against Carolina, Miami, Buffalo and Cincinnati give rise to the possibility that a .500 season or better is a distinct possibility. And that is something no one in his right mind would have predicted back around Labor Day.
But Jacksonville must be conquered first. It won't be easy, of course, but the last three trips down to the northern Florida city have resulted in three victories. There's no reason to believe the Browns can't make it four in a row.
The Jags are a shaky 5-4 this season and can thank a last-second miracle last Sunday against Houston for that record. Otherwise, it has been a spectacularly up-and-down season for Jack Del Rio's crew.
Outside of Maurice Jones-Drew, a one-man gang who has 90% of the team's carries, there is no one on this team who frightens opponents. And the relative success the Browns have had against the run this season (compared to their abysmal stats the last several seasons) causes one to be sanguine about their chances of shutting down Jones-Drew.
Load the box and force quarterback David Garrard to throw the ball. Even though he's coming off a 342-yard game, Garrard has blown hot and cold this season. In the Jags' five victories, he has thrown 14 touchdown passes and just one interception. In their four losses, only one TD and six picks. He's been sacked 17 times, but has completed 69% of his passes.
The Browns will have to pay close attention to huge tight end Marcedes Lewis, who has just 30 catches, but seven have wound up in the end zone. Wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker, another hot-and-cold performer, has just four TD receptions.
But it's the soft Jacksonville defense that the Browns must target. The Cleveland offense, which has grown exponentially the last month since Colt McCoy moved under center, must play aggressively. Expect the Jags to try and take Peyton Hillis out of the offense and force McCoy to throw the ball.
The Jags are hurting along the defensive line with sack leader Aaron Kampman out for the year with a torn ACL and Jeremy Mincey playing with a broken hand. Mincey moves to Kampman's spot on the right side of the line and former first-round draft pick Derrick Harvey takes over on the strong side, a move the Browns should exploit due to Harvey's weak play against the run.
The burgeoning offense, now that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is beginning to trust McCoy more, needs a few new wrinkles. Since he's shown more mobility than expected, more misdirection plays by McCoy could take pressure off the offensive line. And Daboll somehow must get more wide receivers involved.
McCoy can't just keep throwing to Ben Watson and Chansi Stuckey. Evan Moore and Brian Robiskie need to become a part of this offense, especially Moore, who seems to catch everything thrown his way. It just needs to get thrown his way more often.
The Browns, who should have come out of last Sunday's game against the New York Jets with no less than a tie, seem to have recovered emotionally from the loss and appear to be focused on the Jaguars.
If they are in the proper emotional frame of mind on Sunday, they will not lose this one. Make it:
Browns 27, Jaguars 17