The Browns are so confident and capable, they’re turning other teams into the Browns: Doug Lesmerises


CINCINNATI — Since the NFL went to six four-team divisions in 2002, the Browns have finished last in the AFC North 13 times in 16 seasons.

No other NFL team has finished last more than nine times. In the AFC North, everyone knew who the worst team was going to be.

It has never been the Steelers, as they join the Patriots and Seahawks as the three teams never to finish last in this format. It has been the Ravens twice (in 2005 in a tie with the Browns and in 2007) and the Bengals twice (in 2002 and 2010).

So if the Browns are changing, the AFC North is changing.

This conference should be looking for a new doormat. Because if the Browns are no longer going to be the Browns, then someone else has to take their place.

Having been in a few Browns losing locker rooms, a spin through the Bengals locker room on Sunday afternoon offered a familiar vibe, a mix of anger and resignation, with talk of injuries and slow starts and the need for everyone to do their job. The Bengals are still ahead of the Browns in the AFC North, at 5-6 to the Browns 4-6-1, but after the Browns jumped on Cincinnati early Sunday and held on for a 35-20 win, it sure didn’t feel that way.

This isn’t a Bengals story, though. It’s a Browns story. After a decade of having it done to them, it’s a reminder of what the Browns are now doing, at times, to other teams.

We’ll get to what the Bengals think of the Browns. But what do the Browns think other teams might be thinking of them now, as they’ve won two of three under interim coach Gregg Williams?

“I mean, they can’t think of the same old Browns. That’s in the past,” defensive end Myles Garrett said. “They’ve got to look at whatever we’ve been doing, and we’ve been hanging in there almost every game. … They’ve got to look at film and know we have potential and players at all spots who can make plays.”

I hate “same old Browns” talk, and guys like Garrett and Baker Mayfield shouldn’t have to engage in it. But I asked the question that led Garrett toward that phrase in the context of this — passing off the label.

This isn’t playoff talk. If you want to imagine the team with the 12th-best record in the AFC winning out against Houston, Carolina, Denver, Cincinnati and Baltimore on the way to a 9-6-1 record that squeezes them into the last wild card spot, you’ll have to engage that somewhere else.

We’re just talking about the Brown getting out of the basement for the first time since 2010.

Because that’s going to happen. The Browns were filled with life Sunday, joking around, loving the fact Damarious Randall intercepted a pass and went out of bounds to hand the ball to former Browns coach Hue Jackson on the sideline, in a split-second troll job worthy of a mural.

The Bengals were this:

“I’m going to continue to believe in this team. What’s why I give it my all each and every week. It’s hard. It sucks. I’m extremely hurt and mad about it. ” – receiver Tyler Boyd.

“I can see (we’re pressing), yeah. I can speak for myself on it. You feel like you’ve got to do something to make a play and then you’re giving something up.” — linebacker Jordan Evans.

We’ve got to show that heart all four quarters. It was kind of frustrating. We turned it back on when we were down 35-7, but for any NFL team, it’s kind of hard when you’re down 28.” — safety Jessie Bates.

“I just think sometimes it’s like Coach Lewis said when we came in. It’s stop pointing fingers at someone else. If I’m a linebacker, oh, it’s the defensive line’s fault or the safety’s fault or the offense’s fault or special teams. No, it’s no one’s fault but your own. … Worry about yourself. Don’t worry about no one else. Do your job or they’ll get somebody in here to do your job better. Everyone’s got to have that in their brains.” — linebacker Vincent Rey.

How many times have you read quotes like that from the Browns?

Now the Browns forced those words out of a rival by beating them on the football field. The Browns aren’t just getting better. They’re helping other teams get worse.

While evaluating their own failures, the Bengals were also forced to answer for the pregame talk the Browns engaged in during the week. Cincinnati had to explain Cleveland’s confidence.

“All the talk and stuff like that going into the game, we’re all prideful men, we’re all competitive,” Bengals receiver Alex Erickson said. “When you see it, you see it, and it’s in your head and you know who said it. And that’s just all part of the game.

They were forced to talk about that play-making rookie quarterback for the Browns, after Baker Mayfield threw for four touchdowns.

“I just know what he brings in every locker room” said Evans, who played with Mayfield at Oklahoma. “That’s just the kind of player he’s been. That’s what he brought to OU and that’s what he’s brought to Cleveland. You’re seeing it.”

They even had to talk about Randall handing that football to Jackson, their new assistant to the head football coach.

“I didn’t see that,” receiver John Ross said, “but I mean, stuff like that, that’s on us to be like, ‘OK, that’s how you want to do it?’ Then we step our game up. And we made some plays out there. Did we make enough of them? Probably not. But we’ll have another chance to go out again and play them, so we’ll see next time.”

That will happen, in the next-to-last week of the year, in Cleveland on Dec. 23.

By then, it may be clear who’s going to finish last in the AFC North this season.

Not the Browns.

NFL last-place finishes since 2002

13 – Cleveland

9 – Tampa Bay

8 – Detroit, Washington, Buffalo

7 – Houston, Oakland

6 – N.Y. Jets, St. Louis/LA Rams, Chicago

5 – Miami, Jacksonville, Kansas City, San Francisco, Arizona

4 – Dallas, Philadelphia, Carolina, San Diego/LA Chargers, Tennessee

3 – New Orleans, Atlanta, Minnesota, N.Y Giants

2 – Cincinnati, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Denver

1 – Green Bay

0 – Pittsburgh, New England, Seattle

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