Year in and year out, the theme around the top of the AFC North has been strong stingy defense and efficient timely offense, as many Browns fans have been made painfully aware of for far too long. It’s why Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco are never mentioned among the elite passers in the NFL. It’s why the Browns have been unable to keep up with their division as the seasons have unfolded. After impressive back-to-back victories, have the Browns at long last broken through that AFC North ceiling?
For years, the Browns have hung around in low-scoring divisional games, only to get punched out late by a backbreaking fourth quarter drive that decides the game. On Sunday, we saw a classic AFC North battle. Only one thing was different; The Browns defense was the one controlling the game and the Browns offense was the one taking care of the ball and scoring the late touchdown that breaks the game open.
Sure, it’s just one division game, but if you look back at the types of games the Browns typically take from the division, they’ve been uncharacteristic high-scoring games where the Browns had an offensive explosion. Last year’s home victory over the Bengals required 34 points. On Sunday, the Browns played an AFC North rival at their own game and won. Brian Hoyer hasn’t been spectacular but he has played well enough to earn victories in the first two starts with the Browns. More importantly on Sunday, he took care of the ball and kept the defense out of trouble, after throwing three picks in Minnesota a week earlier. Hoyer has also come through in key spots, with two touchdown drives in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter of the last two games.
A lot has been made over the least two weeks about if Hoyer can be the franchise quarterback. An AFC North franchise quarterback doesn’t mean the production of a Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. You could make the argument that Hoyer is playing better than Roethlisberger, Flacco and Andy Dalton right now. He’s showing some of the intangibles that the Browns have desperately wanted to see from the quarterback spot for a long time. As long as Hoyer’s able to manage games efficiently, there’s no need to think about anything beyond the next game. There are long-term questions about all starting quarterbacks in the AFC North right now. Nothing stifles those questions like good defensive play, as Roethlisberger and Flacco can attest to.
Heading into week five, the Cleveland defense is 4th in total defense, 6th in rush defense and 10th in pass defense. The biggest improvement over the last two weeks has been the pass defense. Joe Haden is nearly unbeatable and is arguably growing into a Top 5 cornerback in the league. At the other corner, Buster Skrine is starting to play with more consistency, which has made this defense much tougher. It’s easy to look at the box score of the Browns’ 31-27 win over the Vikings and say the defense wasn’t great. But the Browns turned the ball over four times, which repeatedly gave the Vikings very good field position. Cleaning up those turnovers allowed the Browns defense to shine against the Bengals.
The Browns defense is very young, which is a double-edged sword right now. It means it will be hard for them to consistently perform at this level, without the lapses of young players still trying to find their footing on the football world’s brightest stage. But it’s also providing this inexperienced Browns team a road map for winning AFC North brand football games in the coming months and years. It’s still too soon to tell if the Browns can be counted among the true contenders this season, but Sunday’s game had a brand new feel to it. It’s been a while since the Browns offense got to finish a game in the victory formation.