If the Browns were to have made a run this season, it would have been early in the season. If you wanted to be optimistic, that was what you said.
The Browns' schedule was front-loaded with games that the Browns looked like they had a fighting chance of winning. After all, only two of their first 11 opponents had made the postseason in 2010 — and the Peyton Manning-less Colts were one of those teams.
In some cases, the preseason assumptions didn't hold — San Francisco has been much better than expected, as has Cincinnati. Also, Cleveland was clobbered by a Houston club with a significantly better defense than it had a season ago.
Nevertheless, there were some favorable matchups for the Browns, and in some cases, they capitalized. They won at Indianapolis. They beat Miami and Seattle, two wins that look better by the week. And they held on to beat Jacksonville.
However, there were also missed opportunities. Losing to St. Louis was a major disappointment, as was blowing a 10-point lead at Cincinnati. Also, the Browns were surprisingly handled with ease by Tennessee.
In the end, the Browns posted just a 4-7 mark through those first 11 games.
The brutal stretch of Cleveland's schedule began Sunday, and it wasn't pretty. The Ravens won 24-10 at Cleveland, and the game really wasn't that close. The Browns' lone TD came after the outcome was no longer in doubt. The Ravens missed two field goals and multiple opportunities at interceptions.
On a rainy afternoon in Cleveland, the Ravens all but hammered a nail through the football, rushing 55 times and throwing only 23 passes. But Baltimore didn't have to get fancy. The Browns had no answer for RB Ray Rice, who racked up a career-best 204 yards on the ground on 29 carries. Ricky Williams added 76 yards on 16 attempts.
"This is our worst performance as far as stopping the run since I've been here," Browns MLB D'Qwell Jackson said after the game, according to the Akron Beacon Journal.
Jackson is one of the Browns' best and most productive players. He has fought back from missing two seasons with pectoral injuries to become Cleveland's leading tackler. He has had a wonderful season, as have a good number of his defensive teammates. DTs Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor have been solid in the middle. CB Joe Haden is an outstanding ballhawk. DE Jabaal Sheard continues to show promise as a pass rusher.
The defense will be put to the test in these final four games. Twice Cleveland will play Pittsburgh, with the first matchup Thursday night at Heinz Field. While the Browns are tops in the NFL vs. the pass, Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers can give any secondary a tough time.
The Browns' run-defense woes also loom as a concern, with RB Rashard Mendenhall playing better than his numbers reflect.
Overall, though, this has been a good season for the Browns' defense, Sunday's struggles acknowledged. It is hard to be upset with a group that's allowing the eighth-fewest yards in the NFL.
The Browns' offense, however, is a different story.
Cleveland's inability to threaten defenses has been a season-long problem. It showed up in a major way vs. the Ravens. No Browns wideout had a reception of more than 11 yards. A 52-yard Colt McCoy-to-Peyton Hillis completion was the result of Hillis getting behind Ravens SS Bernard Pollard and nothing more. That was an aberration, not something the Browns can count on.
To watch the Browns' offense Sunday was to see an attack that is a long way from being where it needs to be for Cleveland to be a 16-game contender in the AFC North. Oh, the Browns can compete with Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in any given week, and especially when those clubs falter, but this much is certain: The Browns, 30th in yards and 28th in points, are going to struggle if any of those clubs play their best, and it is going to take a top effort from Cleveland to pull off an upset of any of those clubs, Baltimore and Pittsburgh especially.
At 4-8, the Browns are out of division-title contention. With the two games left vs. the Steelers and road trips to Arizona and Baltimore left on the schedule, an 0-4 finish is certainly possible.
The schedule said the Browns had a chance to stack up enough wins early to make these final four weeks interesting. In reality, the club's offensive limitations made that outlook overly optimistic. The Browns can't threaten in this division until they fix their offense. That figures to be driven home in the final quarter of the season. That feeling began in earnest Sunday, when only the Ravens' mistakes allowed the Browns to hang around, and not even that closely.