The Browns, trying to avoid their fourth straight season of double-digit losses, have to sweep their final three games to accomplish that feat. They might have to do so without starting quarterback Colt McCoy.
McCoy sustained a concussion in the Thursday night loss to the Steelers on a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit by linebacker James Harrison. Having played the game on Dec. 8, gives McCoy an extra three days to clear the cobwebs before playing the Cardinals in Arizona on Sunday, but whether that will be enough time won't be known until later in the week. In fact, there is some debate whether McCoy should have finished the game in Pittsburgh.
McCoy was injured with 5:38 to play on the hit by Harrison. He returned to the field just three minutes and 50 seconds later (in real time) after being cleared by the Browns' medical staff to finish the game.
"We follow the guidelines strictly so I'm very confident that that happened," coach Pat Shurmur said. "If he had shown symptoms of the concussion I wouldn't have put him back in the game. It would have been out of my hands anyway because I would have been told he couldn't go back in."
McCoy returned to the game with 4:18 left. The Browns trailed, 7-3, but a pass from Seneca Wallace to Evan Moore for 13 yards with McCoy on the sideline put the ball on the Steelers' 5-yard line for first and goal. The Browns lost yardage on the next two plays and on third down McCoy threw an interception in the end zone.
Wallace seemed clearly unhappy about being removed, and then the next morning Brad McCoy, Colt McCoy's father, stoked the fires of debate when he said his son never should have been permitted to return.
"There were a lot of easy symptoms that should've told them he had a concussion," the elder McCoy told Cleveland.com. "He was nauseated and didn't know who he was."
Shurmur said McCoy did not display concussion symptoms until after the game. Asked at his locker whether he was OK after being belted by Harrison, McCoy answered: "I don't know. I don't know. I think I'm all right. I was all right to go back in the game. I was more worried about my hand."
McCoy also suffered a bruised left hand on the play.
Wallace would start against the Cardinals if McCoy cannot play, and that scenario could present problems the Browns probably do not want to confront.
McCoy is 0-8 as a starter against teams from the AFC North. If Wallace wins in the desert, the Browns might be obligated to start Wallace against the Ravens in Baltimore on Dec. 24. If Wallace won that game, the Browns would have a full-blown controversy with one game left - a home match against the Steelers on New Year's Day. No matter what happens in the final game, the controversy could carry over to the draft and 2012 training camp.
LINEUP WATCH: Tight end Benjamin Watson suffered his third concussion of 2011 in Pittsburgh. The previous two did not cause him to miss games.
BY THE NUMBERS: The Browns are 3-19 in their last 22 division games.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--RB Montario Hardesty touched the ball for the first time in five weeks, carrying 11 times for 24 yards. He had been sidelined with a calf injury.
--TE Evan Moore had his most productive game of the season with five catches for 55 yards.