June 30, 2016

Partly cloudy

Browns: There is still playoff hope

The Browns are 4-5 at the bye, their best record through nine games since they were 5-4 in 2007. For those who guessed a 7-9 finish in the preseason, the Browns are right on schedule.

No one, however, could’ve predicted the route they traveled to arrive at 4-5.

Running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden were supposed to be better in their second season, their first in coordinator Norv Turner’s offensive system, and lead the way back to respectability. Instead, Richardson flopped and was traded after two games, and Weeden regressed as the season progressed and was benched in Week 8.

Replacement quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell, rookie coach Rob Chudzinski and a solid defense have been the keys to the Browns rallying twice from losing streaks and staying within striking distance of Cincinnati in the AFC North.

The Browns actually find themselves well-positioned to make noise in the North, with the next three weeks crucial to staying relevant. They play at Cincinnati on Sunday, then return home for games against Pittsburgh and Jacksonville.

Any hopes for a sustained hot streak and the first playoff appearance since 2002 will require improvement in a few key areas.

The defense must get better on third down and in the red zone, where it ranks near the bottom of the league. On offense, the running game must find some traction to take pressure off Campbell as the weather turns.

“There’s a lot of things that we need to improve on,” Chudzinski said. “We’re still a work in progress in that way. I expect us to keep improving like we need to.”

Before the season, owner Jimmy Haslam and his new front office said the goal was to be better at the end of the season than at the start, which should be expected with a young team, under a new coach, learning new systems. If the goal is realized and the Browns are better over the remaining seven games, November and December should contain meaningful football for a change.

“We had high expectations coming into the year, which was to change this program around,” said cornerback Buster Skrine, who’s been a pleasant surprise. “So my expectations haven’t changed. I know we can be a really good team. That’s what we’re striving for, and to make something new happen this year.”

Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.

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