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The Cleveland Browns have had little success in December over the last few years, but then again, they haven’t had much to play for. That’s not the case this season.
Cleveland is in the thick of the AFC playoff race, and with a string of games against lesser opponents beginning with Sunday’s visit to Arizona, the Browns have their sights set on qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in five years.
The Browns went 9-7 in 2002 and fell 36-33 at Pittsburgh in the wild-card round after holding a 12-point lead with just over 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. They followed up that heartbreaking defeat with four straight losing seasons, including a 4-12 mark in 2006.
Cleveland’s play in December had much to do with those disappointing finishes. The Browns have won one game in each of the last four Decembers, posting a 4-14 mark in the month over that span.
This season, though, their last five games are against opponents with a combined 19-36 record, the easiest remaining schedule of the 10 AFC clubs within one game of .500 or better.
At 7-4, Cleveland would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
“We kind of control our own destiny,” said linebacker Andra Davis, one of the few Browns still around from the 2002 playoff team. “I’ve been waiting a long time to say that.”
The Browns hold the second and final wild-card spot behind 8-3 Jacksonville, and also trail the first-place Steelers by just one game in the AFC North. Pittsburgh, though, defeated Cleveland twice this season so the Browns may have a better chance of securing a wild-card berth than winning the division.
Cleveland, however, isn’t looking that far ahead.
“It’s now a five-game season,” running back Jamal Lewis said. “The next one is the biggest one for us. As I’ve learned in this league, everything will play out.”
Lewis had a big game for Cleveland last weekend, rushing for 134 yards and a touchdown on a season-high 29 carries in a 27-17 win over Houston - the Browns’ fifth victory in six games.
He has 226 yards in his last two games after running for 264 in his previous six.
“It’s my time of year,” said Lewis, who has rushed for 741 yards and eight TDs in 10 games. “It’s time to run the football. … Right now, I’m feeling it. I’m in a little groove.”
So is tight end Kellen Winslow, who has 31 receptions for 342 yards and two touchdowns over the last four games. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards has also played well lately, catching seven TDs in the past six contests.
“We’re a team,” Lewis said. “If you look back at all the championship teams, they were all teams - one unit. You didn’t have individuals. There are no individuals on this team.
“We want a balanced attack. If one isn’t working, the other one will.”
Cleveland improved to 5-1 at home last week and will now look to even its road record with a matchup against Arizona (5-6), which is coming off a terrible home loss.
The Cardinals fell 37-31 in overtime Sunday to San Francisco, which entered on an eight-game losing streak.
Arizona managed to send the game to overtime on Neil Rackers’ 19-yard field goal at the end of regulation, but he missed a 32-yard attempt in the extra period and the 49ers won when they recovered a fumble by Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner in the end zone.
The Cardinals fell two games behind first-place Seattle in the NFC West and remained one behind Detroit for the final wild-card berth. Arizona hasn’t made the playoffs since 1998.
“We’re still in the race,” first-year Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “Realistically we’re not where we want to be, and it’s a tough road. The biggest thing that we approach with this team is we’re doing things the right way. If we play better, if we don’t have as many mistakes, we win that football game.”
Warner, already playing with a torn ligament in his non-throwing elbow, injured his ribs in the third quarter. An X-ray on Monday didn’t show anything definitive.
“They say the treatment’s the same whether it’s cartilage, a bruise or a break,” said Warner, who threw for a career-high 484 yards with two TDs and two interceptions. “It’s kind of a pain thing at this point, and we’ll go through the week and see how we handle it.”
Arizona’s remaining five opponents have a combined 24-31 record.
“No matter how you feel,” receiver Anquan Boldin said, “the last five games are going to be played. So guys have got to make up in their minds whether they want to get it done or not.”
Arizona lost its third defensive starter in the past three weeks Wednesday, as Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson will undergo season-ending surgery on his injured right heel.
The Cardinals placed cornerback Eric Green on injured reserve Tuesday with a groin tear, and defensive end Bertrand Berry was lost for the year after suffering a torn left triceps against Detroit on Nov. 11.
Cleveland hasn’t visited Arizona since a 29-21 loss on Oct. 8, 2000. The Browns won 44-6 in the teams’ last meeting Nov. 16, 2003.
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