The Cleveland Browns were flirting with playoff contention just two weeks ago. Now, after two disappointing setbacks they find themselves on the brink of an all-too-familiar position - a last-place finish.
While the Jacksonville Jaguars already saw their postseason chances evaporate long ago, it hasn’t kept them from playing solid football of late.
Cleveland hopes Brandon Weeden can turn things around when he makes his first start in more than a month Sunday against the visiting Jaguars.
The Browns (4-7) were very much alive in the murky AFC playoff picture until suffering back-to-back divisional losses by a combined 37 points. Those results saw them slide to last place in the AFC North - a spot they’ve finished eight of the last 10 years. Any more losses would prove almost fatal to their slim postseason hopes.
They committed four turnovers in consecutive games for the first time since December 2004. They haven’t done so in three straight contests since December 1978.
Accounting for two of those turnovers was Weeden, who replaced Jason Campbell after he suffered a concussion late in the first half of Sunday’s 27-11 loss to Pittsburgh. Weeden was 13 of 30 for 209 yards, a touchdown and an interception while also fumbling once.
With Campbell still sidelined, the twice-demoted Weeden will make his first start since an Oct. 20 loss to Green Bay. Cleveland hasn’t won with Weeden as its starting quarterback since Dec. 9.
Weeden was greeted by boos almost as soon as he came in against the Steelers, though he said the lack of crowd support doesn’t bother him.
“I know that he has the backing of his teammates,” coach Rob Chudzinski said. “The type of guys that we have in the locker room, their support for him, they want to win and everybody realizes that Brandon needs to play well, as everybody does.”
Once having the look of a potential winless club with eight straight double-digit losses to begin their season, the Jaguars (2-9) appear to be making progress. They’ve won two of three with victories at Tennessee and Houston, and seek their first consecutive victories since December 2010.
“Our objective is to really sustain this and play at a high level all the time regardless of who we play,” coach Gus Bradley said. “That’s what we’re really striving our team to get to, where they play their best all the time. If we do that, the wins will take care of themselves.”
A resurgent defense has keyed Jacksonville’s improvement, surrendering 218 yards in last week’s 13-6 victory over the Texans, its fewest allowed in two years. The run defense has been especially stingy, yielding an average of 58.0 yards in the last three contests after giving up 161.8 per game in the first eight.
“We really locked into a couple (defenses), but I think our guys are starting to understand it better,” Bradley said. “I think they’re getting a comfort level now of how to play their responsibility yet keep themselves alive for the whole play. That’s what you’re seeing on tape. You’re seeing guys do that now, and because of it, they’re playing with more confidence.”
The Jaguars also discovered some offensive balance versus Houston, with Maurice Jones-Drew recording a season-high 144 total yards and running for a touchdown for the third straight game.
He could be in for a difficult day against a Browns defense that ranks sixth against the run (97.7 ypg) and is one of three clubs yet to allow a 100-yard rusher. However, Jones-Drew is averaging 100.7 rushing yards over his last three games versus Cleveland.
For the Browns, receiver Josh Gordon is likely to draw a lot of attention after tying a team-record with 14 catches for a franchise-best 237 yards against Pittsburgh. He’s just 301 yards shy of Braylon Edwards’ single-season record of 1,289 set in 2007.
“It really doesn’t mean that much to me,” Gordon said. “After taking a loss like that, it means nothing. If we can’t go out there and win, I really don’t care about it.”
Jacksonville held Houston’s Andre Johnson to a season-low two catches after he entered averaging 7.2 per game - the league’s fourth-best mark.
The Jaguars lead the series 9-5 but have dropped three of the last four meetings including a 14-10 defeat in Cleveland on Nov. 20, 2011. Jones-Drew totaled 118 yards on 25 touches with a score.