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Browns need to improve to surprise in AFC North

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Recent posts by Mike Wilkening

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Posted Oct. 24, 2011 @ 6:24 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

The Browns, fighting to stay in the AFC North race, won a key battle Sunday, grinding out a 6-3 victory vs. Seattle. The win evens Cleveland's record at 3-3 and keeps the Browns 1½ games behind the Ravens and Steelers and one game behind the surprising Bengals.

This is just the third time the Browns have been at .500 or better through six games since returning to NFL play in 1999. Any discussion of Browns wins and style points has to be viewed through that lens. For Cleveland, simply notching enough "W's" to be relevant in the AFC North is progress.

However, to take the next step, the Browns have to play better than they did on Sunday while continuing to build on their good work through six games.

The PFW Spin

Here's a closer look at Cleveland's assets and liabilities entering Week Eight: 

Assets

The defense is playing at a high level. The Browns rank fourth in the NFL in yards allowed per game and fourth in yards per play. They are allowing the second-fewest passing yards per game, and though opponents have had some success rushing vs. Cleveland, the Browns are allowing just 3.9 yards per carry. The Browns can feel good about their play of the defense on all levels after limiting Seattle to a mere 137 yards — the fewest the franchise has allowed since 1993. The Browns have made a smooth transition to the 4-3 scheme, a credit to defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, the rest of the coaching staff and the personnel. The Browns' defensive line is stout, its LB corps swarming, its secondary largely sound. MLB D'Qwell Jackson and CB Joe Haden are especiallly having sparkling seasons.

The offense can string drives together and has taken care of the ball. The Browns have committed six turnovers in six games, and they are converting 42.2 percent of their third downs. The Browns controlled the ball for 42:56 on Sunday vs. Seattle.

The upcoming schedule gives Cleveland a chance to continue to hang around in the AFC North race. The Browns are nine-point underdogs at San Francisco on Sunday, and they figure to be underdogs at Houston in Week Nine, but they then host winless St. Louis (Nov. 13) and 1-5 Jacksonville (Nov. 20). A 5-5 record would be a reasonable expectation for Cleveland entering the Week 11 game at Cincinnati.

Liabilities

Their special-teams play has been a glaring weakness the past two weeks. The Browns had two field goals blocked by Seahawks DE Red Bryant on Sunday, and had Seahawks CB Kennard Cox not been flagged (and dubiously so, to say the least) for a block in the back, they would have surrendered a punt-return touchdown to Leon Washington. This comes on the heels of the Browns allowing kickoff-return and fake-FG touchdowns in Week Six at Oakland. For a team that has scored more than 17 points once in six games, special-teams errors like this can be just crushing. The saving grace for the unit? PK Phil Dawson hit field goals of 52 and 53 yards in victory. 

The offense lacks big-play ability.  Nine of the Browns' 432 offensive plays have gone for 20 yards or more. Cleveland ranks last in the NFL in passing plays of 20-plus yards (eight), and it is last in rushes of 20-plus yards (one). Cleveland is scoring 16.2 points per game, which ranks near the bottom of the league.

Slow starts are a persistent problem for Cleveland. The Browns have been outscored 34-3 in the first quarter this season. Also, they have been outscored 29-6 in the third quarter.

The Browns have clawed their way onto the edge of contention in a very tough division. But to be credible contenders, they need to continue to play tough defense while improving on offense and special teams. It is one thing to be competitive in standings-form; it's another to do so on the field against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. And don't forget Cincinnati, too.

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