As It Stands Now: AFC North Tour Edition

We should learn a lot about the 4-6 Browns over the next three weekends.

Thanksgiving weekend in the NFL usually serves as an unofficial marker of a team's progress. Usually by the 11th game of the season, either a likely playoff pool or draft order has emerged. In the Browns' specific case, their 2011 path has been forged by the installation of yet another rebuilding project. For better or worse – which at least keeps the debate churning – the Browns stand at 4-6, which lodges them directly in some nether region of growth.

Adding to this vague notion of progress, the Browns are incredibly fortunate to be standing at 4-6. These four wins have come against opponents who are a combined 10-30, including a dismal and still winless Colt team. Further inflating the Browns' win total is the fact that all four wins came against struggling quarterbacks.

Against Indianapolis, the Browns faced an immobile Kerry Collins – which led to a season-high sack fest. Miami produced a still healthy Chad Henne, who has become famous for fourth-quarter meltdowns. Seattle offered Charlie Whitehurst – which speaks for itself and Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert alternated laser strikes with balls thrown in the dirt.

But of course, any logically thinking Browns fan already knows this – along with the suggestion that victories also nearly arrived against Bruce Gradkowski and the Bengals and a one-legged Sam Bradford. In some respects, these 4-6 Browns – characterized by everything from falling asleep on defense, slumbering on offense and sleepwalking special teams – could easily be a 6-4 playoff contender.

Or, for the more sinister-thinking fan, we could be watching a 1-9 team. After all, take away the last minute comeback against the Dolphins, a Marshawn Lynch injury and Dirk Koetter's exotic play calling and a very different story could be told regarding these 2011 Browns.

Anyway, what's done is done and more importantly, the next three weekends will more accurately define the 2011 Browns. This Sunday, the Browns travel to Cincinnati to take on the 6-4 Bengals, followed by a return home for Baltimore and a Thursday night game at Pittsburgh.

In a more accurate reflection of NFL reality, the Browns' three AFC North relatives currently boast a combined 20-10 record. Or, if the season ended today, the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals would all find themselves with playoff spots.

From a more immediate perspective, all three AFC North teams feature something the Browns have seen very little of in 2011 – efficient quarterback play. So far this season, the Browns have not played against an elite quarterback and have only faced mid-tier talent in Houston's Matt Schaub and San Francisco's Alex Smith.

Perhaps this might explain the Browns' top-ranked pass defense and seventh-ranked overall defense.

Over the past several years, the AFC North has evolved into a pass-happy division. Long forgotten are the days of bruising running backs such as Jamal Lewis and Jerome Bettis. While all three teams still feature modest rushing attacks, the fortunes of the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers have been governed through the air.

In 2011, the AFC North quarterback trio of Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger have combined to throw for 40 touchdowns and over 7,000 yards. While these numbers are impressive – especially when compared to the Browns' anemic representative – what's more significant is the realization that all three players exclusively hold the destinies of their respective teams.

In Cincinnati, Dalton has essentially rescued a Bengal team that featured everything but a passing game. After suffering through various Carson Palmer-induced struggles, the Bengals handed their offense over to both a rookie quarterback and offensive coordinator.

Sound familiar, Browns fans?

Yet, with the aid of a physical defense and consistent rushing attack, the Bengals jumped out to a surprise 6-2 start, before falling in consecutive weeks to the Steelers and Ravens. However, the surprisingly confident play of Dalton has vaulted the Bengals into NFL legitimacy.

In Baltimore, the Ravens have again been measured by Flacco's progress as a big-game quarterback. The Ravens' two most impressive wins have come against the Steelers – games in which Flacco has dominated. However, in losses to the Titans and Jaguars, Flacco has struggled. At times, the fourth-year quarterback appears eccentrically placid – almost to the point of being void of emotion.

Finally, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger continues to show why he's basically the most underrated top tier player in the league. On a weekly basis, Roethlisberger takes a beating behind the Steelers' bare offensive line, yet survives to continually make game-changing plays. Roethlisberger's innate improvisational skills have again proven the reason why the Steelers stand as one of the league's top teams.

As for how all this relates to the Browns, the strategy that will likely be employed by all three teams will be strikingly similar over the next few weeks. Simply put, the Browns have not been challenged through the air this season. With the slight exception of the Dolphins, virtually all the Browns' opponents have featured a conservative attack aimed at grinding out possessions.

Against their AFC North brethren, the Browns cannot expect to see the same strategy. While the Bengals are still primarily a run-first team, their passing game has evolved with Dalton's own personal growth as a quarterback. Both the Ravens and Steelers are simply built to little more than throw the ball.

In terms of timing, perhaps this stretch of schedule couldn't have come at a worse time for the Browns – at least depending on whose perspective you are using. For the Browns' secondary, the absence of safety T.J. Ward certainly doesn't help matters – especially considering that all three teams regularly feature tight ends in their passing games. And we all know what happens when the Browns' sluggish linebackers try to chase down opponents' screen passes.

For the Browns' power trust, maybe the timing couldn't be better. Since the Browns have loaded up against NFC West and AFC South talent this season, it's hard to get a feel for which areas of the roster need addressed in the offseason. Three weeks from now, GM Tom Heckert may realize that both cornerback and safety again need addressed in 2012 – especially if the Browns' secondary gets ripped apart.

Finally, beleaguered rookie head coach Pat Shurmur could buy himself some precious breathing room from the Browns' rabid fan base. Considering the record of Shurmur's predecessors against the AFC North, stealing a win from the Ravens or Steelers could do wonders for the first-time head coach's image.

Not to mention giving us all a better understanding of these Browns.


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