AFC North: Cleveland Browns

BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns might be without defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin for some time.

Coach Mike Pettine said Rubin went for a second opinion on an injured ankle. He has missed the last two games.

Pettine was asked if surgery could be a possibility.

“I would think all options are on the table at this point,” he said. “I haven’t heard that brought up yet, but I’m assuming that could be the case.”

The Browns will have an update on Rubin’s status Wednesday.

Rubin’s injury highlights one of the more disappointing position groups on the team. The defensive line was supposed to be a team strength. But the defense ranks last in the league in run defense, giving 155.5 yards per game. Not all of that falls on the line, but it is the first ‘line’ of defense.

In a separate personnel move, the team waived fullback Ray Agnew and promoted Kiero Small from the practice squad.

“He’s been doing an outstanding job for us on the scout teams,” Pettine said. “We just felt it was time to promote him and see what he can do.”

There was also word that Seattle was about to sign Small to the Seahawks' active roster, which teams can do with practice squad players.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The ESPN Stats and Information crew puts this Cleveland Browns loss in perspective, and no matter how it's viewed the perspective is not pretty:

The Browns had not scored fewer than 21 points this season until the Jacksonville Jaguars held them to six. It ends a streak of five games in a row of scoring at least 21 points -- part of the reason the offensive struggles were surprising.

They failed to gain more than 1 yard on 65 percent of their plays (48 of 74). Entering the game, that figure was at 37 percent, meaning the Jaguars put the Browns in very bad down-and-distance situations.

To complicate matters, the Browns converted only 4 of 20 third downs. The 16 missed conversions is the most in the NFL this season.

Quarterback Brian Hoyer, he had a very poor day throwing -- being off target on 37 percent of his passes. Coming into the game, he missed on just 17 percent of his throws.

Finally, Jaguars' quarterback Blake Bortles' Total Quarterback Rating was a woeful 9.0. That's the lowest for a quarterback in a win since Andy Dalton won with a 3.7 QBR in Week 11 of last season. The common denominator: Both games were against the Browns.

It was one very long day.

In other Browns news ...
  • The one throw Hoyer said he wished he had back was a wild overthrow of an open Jordan Cameron in the end zone prior to a Billy Cundiff field goal. "Who knows how that changes the outcome?" Hoyer said.
  • The common theme after the game was to praise Jacksonville's run defense and their front eight. But the Browns' poor run defense should not be ignored. They faced the league's worst rushing team, and gave up 185 yards. Former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson had 160 career rushing yards entering the game. He finished with 127. "It was good to do it against an Ohio team," Robinson joked, sort of, I think.
  • The Jaguars had lost their last 18 games played in September or October, and had lost nine in a row overall. Two of the Jaguars last six wins have come against the Browns.
  • Hoyer said he thought the Browns had a chance to sneak away with a win after he connected with Andrew Hawkins for a 65-yard pass and run in the fourth quarter. But after that catch, the offense lost four on a run, lost eight on a sack and then threw an incomplete pass. "Demoralizing," Hoyer said.
  • The Browns to a man insisted they did not take the Jaguars lightly after the emotional win over the Steelers. Hoyer said not taking anything for granted was overemphasized in practice during the week.
  • Joe Thomas on why he said the Jaguars were the best defense the Browns faced all season: "They sell out to stop the run. They've got great safeties who play in the box. They've got one of the best linebackers in the NFL, and a tremendous front."
  • Thomas on the loss following a big win and how the team avoids the "same old Browns" moniker: "It's the nature of the league. You win one game and you're crowned as Super Bowl champions. You lose one and you're announced as the worst team in the league. I hope that we have the perspective on this team to understand that that's the way it goes in the NFL."
  • The final word, from Ben Tate, on how to show these are not the same old Browns: "Come back and play. Come out and play ball. That's all."
videoJACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Browns are for real.

Address Brian Hoyer's contract situation.

AFC North sleeper.

Maybe Cleveland didn’t like those nifty storylines from earlier this week. The Browns opted instead to turn up the misery index once again with a 24-6 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field, sabotaging a perfectly good chance to go 4-2.

As if the Browns following their well-worn path of killing weeks of momentum with shoddy play on the road was not enough, the sheer comedic performance of one particular play Sunday in Jacksonville should suffice.

On fourth-and-5, Hoyer ran an option play from midfield, pitching it to Ben Tate for a two-yard loss. That’s not the Browns’ game. Hoyer is not a runner. But the offense wasn’t even supposed to snap the ball. It lined up to catch Jacksonville in a substitution timeout or offsides but center John Greco snapped it into Hoyer’s hands.

"Everybody was shocked, but I was like, 'Oh my God, what am I supposed to do?'" said Tate in the locker room.

Questions plagued a Browns lineup that too easily unraveled. Its vaunted rush averaged 2.3 yards per carry. Its defense created three turnovers but saw an additional three points on the scoreboard as a result. The offense turned a prime first-half opportunity -- second-and-2 from Jacksonville’s 33-yard line with 2:36 left and a 6-0 lead -- into seven points for the Jaguars.

Even with a win still attainable late in the second half, cornerback Jordan Poyer muffing a punt at Jacksonville's 2-yard line encapsulated an ugly day. The Browns replaced sure-handed Jim Leonhard for Poyer, who is a better playmaker but clearly shouldn't have been fielding a punt from the 2 unless he was sure to catch it.

The defense was serviceable, creating turnovers and holding Jacksonville to 10 points for most of the game. But it also allowed running back Denard Robinson to rush for 127 yards. That’s four more than the team’s previous leading rusher, Toby Gerhart, has all year.

All last week, coaches told players how good Jacksonville was despite its 0-6 start. All this week, the Browns will realize how good they made Jacksonville look.

"We knew they were good. They put it to us today," tight end Jordan Cameron said. "It’s unacceptable."

Cameron had the inside track on the Browns’ best chance for a touchdown, beating his man to the back of the end zone on a third-and-4 play in the second quarter, but Hoyer (16-of-41 passing, 215 yards) overthrew him.

Cleveland's entire day was one big overthrow to nobody in particular. Jacksonville was never an automatic springboard -- Pettine agreed the Jaguars had the best defensive front his team has faced -- but going 4-of-17 on third down wasn’t the way to show them respect.

No third down was more costly than Hoyer’s sack-fumble on the Browns’ opening drive of the first half.

"It is frustrating to see us go out and take a step back like we did," Pettine said.

Perhaps this could have been the Browns’ day had it avoided an ugly sequence late in the second half by either taking a field goal or running the ball on fourth-and-1.

Originally, the Browns needed two yards for a first down and had three plays to get it. But rookie running back Terrance West, who was inactive the previous week, got one yard off consecutive carries, one in which he danced around in the backfield unnecessarily.

On fourth-and-1 with a 6-0 lead, Hoyer rolled to his right and targeted Cameron, who ran an out toward the sideline but was covered all the way. The play was over before it started.

Pettine went for it because “to come away with just another field goal” would have been disappointing, he says. He didn't want to stall another drive. Plus he believed his defense could stop the Jaguars, who needed less than a minute to march 76 yards downfield for a momentum-stealing score.

"As it turns out it couldn’t have gone worse for us," Pettine said.

As for the botched fourth-and-5 play, Browns players didn’t throw each other under the bus, which is a good sign, but Hoyer clearly wasn’t expecting the ball.

"We were trying to maybe catch them off guard," Greco said. "Just bad timing, a miscommunication. We were thinking one thing and Brian was telling us to do something else."

Despite a few missed tackles, the defense probably played well enough to win. But without its normal rushing prowess, the Browns were in third-and-long 10 times Sunday. Incredibly hard to win that way.

"Three turnovers [from the defense], you expect to win that football game," said Andrew Hawkins, who finished with 112 receiving yards. "It’s unfortunate."

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Of the many accurate statements Brian Hoyer uttered after a dismal Cleveland Browns effort Sunday, one in particular should be noticed.

"When you get beat like this, it's a copycat league and teams are going to try to do exactly what Jacksonville did," Hoyer said after his first real clunker in nine starts as the Browns' quarterback, a 24-6 drubbing by the previously winless Jacksonville Jaguars.

What Jacksonville did was not complex: The Jaguars stuffed the run and rushed with four defenders, leaving seven in coverage. That took away play-action and made Hoyer less effective because there always seemed to be two defenders for every receiver.

Some teams like to run the ball; the Browns need to.

They entered the game averaging 146 yards per game rushing; they got 69, less than half the season average.

"I think I said early in the week, actually, that this is the best defense we've played, and I think everyone kind of snickered," offensive tackle Joe Thomas said.

But to run that poorly put the Browns in a position where they needed someone to pick them up. And Hoyer did not provide it.

"Today is a good example of when a team wins a quarterback gets a lot of credit, but when they don't he gets a lot of blame," coach Mike Pettine said. "I know he missed some throws. We didn't play well enough around him."

It's one game, but addressing the formula the Jaguars provided will be Hoyer's next challenge as the starting quarterback.

"It's a long season," Hoyer said. "We're 3-3, and we blew an opportunity to be 4-2. We got two games at home [against Oakland and Tampa Bay]. Regroup and stick together."

Hoyer overthrew an open Jordan Cameron in the end zone, missing a touchdown. He had five passes knocked down by defensive linemen. He and his receivers were on different wavelengths at different times.

Hoyer's final numbers: 16-of-41 for 215 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. His rating: 46.3.

"A lot of those plays aren't his fault," wide receiver Andrew Hawkins said. "Plays that he's going to get blamed for aren't his fault. We all need to play better."

Pettine pointed to the pressure from Jacksonville's front four, which led to three sacks and numerous hits.

"With the inability to run the football," Pettine said, "it put us in some predictable down-and-distance situations where they maximized their coverage and teed off on their front four. ... You have to run the ball, get ahead on the sticks, and you have to protect him when he is throwing it, and we did neither."

The Browns were without Alex Mack, lost for the season with a broken leg a week ago. That had to matter -- "He's the best center in the NFL," Thomas said -- but they won't have him the rest of the season. And Hoyer's numbers for the past two games are not pretty: 24-for-58 for 432 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a two-game rating of 67.3.

The up-and-down nature of the NFL shows why the Browns can't judge Hoyer, his future and theirs on one game, two games or even five games. They need to keep playing, let the season play out and see what happens.

The Browns averaged 26 points in the seven games Hoyer finished before Jacksonville. If the Jaguars provided the blueprint to attack the Browns' offense, it's now up to Hoyer and coordinator Kyle Shanahan to counter.

It's still Hoyer's team.

The evidence?

Johnny Manziel never took his baseball cap or earpiece off on the sideline.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cleveland Browns' 24-6 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Outplayed: The Browns spent all week admonishing the proverbial "trap game." Didn’t matter. The Browns acknowledged they got beat all over the field -- up the middle, on the edge, in the headset. “It is frustrating to see us go out and take a step back like we did,” coach Mike Pettine said. That the Browns couldn’t score an offensive touchdown despite not overlooking the Jags’ physical front is “unacceptable,” tight end Jordan Cameron said.

Not all on Hoyer: Brian Hoyer’s game -- 16-of-41 passing, 215 yards and an interception -- was a problem but not the whole problem. Coaches and players stressed the Browns must play balanced, cohesive offense to have a chance every week. Hoyer and his receiver looked off on timing all game. “Plays that he’s going to get blamed for aren’t his fault,” receiver Andrew Hawkins said. “We all need to play better.”

Fourth and what? The confusing fourth-and-5 call early in the fourth quarter that resulted in a 2-yard loss by Ben Tate got even more confusing when the Browns tried to explain it. Basically, the Browns offense came off the field, then the punt unit came off while the offense came back. The Browns were trying to draw Jacksonville offsides, but center John Greco snapped the ball. Hoyer was left to scramble right before pitching it to Tate. “We were thinking one thing, and Brian was telling us something else and just bad timing,” Greco said.

Rapid Reaction: Cleveland Browns

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 24-6 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field.

What it means: Belief in the NFL can last only one week when a team is not mentally sharp and plays poorly. The Browns, their fans and their media all felt pretty good about the team after a big win over Pittsburgh. As good as that game was, this effort against the Jaguars was poor, as the offense couldn't run or pass and the decisions on the field and the sideline cried for more explanation. It was a bad day for the entire team, as the Jaguars obviously took personally all the talk that the Browns could visit and beat them. This was Mike Pettine's first clunker. Now he and his team must respond.

Stock watch: This also was the first real clunker for Brian Hoyer in his nine starts for the Browns. He had several passes blocked at the line, was not on the same page with his receivers and simply seemed out of sorts, as the Jaguars almost seemed to know the Browns' plays. The Browns never, though, had Johnny Manziel warm up to come in the game. That would seem to indicate that the Browns feel, as Pettine said in the week leading up to the game, that Hoyer is “entrenched” as the Browns starter. The team gives every indication that is the case, but with Manziel on the sideline it will always be watched.

Crazy call: On fourth-and-5 at the Jacksonville 43 early in the fourth quarter, the Browns tried to catch the Jaguars napping and rushed the punt team off the field and offense back on. Hoyer wound up running an option play that went nowhere after he pitched to Ben Tate. What looked like a silly call, though, seemed intended more to catch Jacksonville off guard, as Hoyer snapped the ball as a Jaguars player scampered to the sideline. Clearly Hoyer thought the Jaguars had 12 on the field, and so did an official who threw a flag. When the ball was snapped, Hoyer ran and pitched probably figuring the Browns would get the first down to penalty. Except the player running off was Jacksonville’s 11th man. The Browns not only miscounted the number of players, but they also did not get the first down against 10 defenders.

Road woes start: One time is a quirk. Two times is a concern. Three times is a pattern. In every road game this season, the Browns have stared poorly. Very poorly. They trailed Pittsburgh 27-3 at halftime, and they trailed Tennessee 28-10 at the half. Jacksonville went to the locker room leading 7-6 in part thanks to Pettine’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Jaguars' 24. The Browns failed, Blake Bortles came to life, and the Jaguars scored a late touchdown to go ahead. In three road games, one against an 0-6 team, the Browns have been outscored 62-19 in the first half. The difference against the Jaguars: The offense never got going in the second half.

Interesting decision: The second-guessers were out in full force after the Browns failed to get 1 yard twice from the Jaguars' 24 late in the first half. The Browns led 6-0 and Jacksonville’s offense had done little when Pettine and Kyle Shanahan made some “interesting” calls. First they handed off to Terrance West from the pistol. West, who was jitterbugging way too much the first half, ran right into the back of center John Greco and was stopped. On fourth down, Pettine bypassed a field goal and nine-point lead and Shanahan ran play-action out of the pistol. Jacksonville ate the play up, and the throw was incomplete. The Jaguars followed with their first touchdown of the game, which opened up all the second-guessing discussion.

Game ball: Nobody deserves the game ball for the Browns. They played that poorly. Someone has to get it, though, and Billy Cundiff did make both of his field goal attempts. On an embarrassing day, the guy who made two field goals to account for all of the team's points gets the game ball.

What's next: The Browns return home for the second of three games against struggling teams as they face the Oakland Raiders in Cleveland.
BEREA, Ohio -- Mike Pettine’s message to the Cleveland Browns all week as Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars approached:

Take nothing for granted.

Not even going to Jacksonville after winning two in a row to play a winless Jaguars team that has struggled this season.

The ever-honest Pettine freely admits that this game has many potential pratfalls for a team coming off an emotional victory over Pittsburgh. He doesn’t want to overdo it, but his message was typically pointed.

[+] EnlargeCecil Shorts
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsBrowns coach Mike Pettine preached against overlooking the Jaguars, who beat the Browns in Cleveland last year on this Cecil Shorts catch.
“This weekend will be as big a test of that maturity and focus as we’ve had to date,” Pettine said.

Because ...

“I just think of all the circumstances,” Pettine said.

Then he listed them.

“What we’re having to overcome with the two-man change in the offensive line [with the loss of center Alex Mack],” Pettine said. “Having to overcome the loss of [Browns defensive lineman] Armonty Bryant. Going on the road, where we haven’t started games well.

The Browns have been outscored 27-3 and 28-10 in the first half of their road games, a red flag if ever there was one.

Pettine continued: “Then all the circumstances talking about Jacksonville -- that this is a better team than what their record shows. They’re hungry. They’re competitive. They’re prideful. We’re going to get their best shot.”

Given the Browns' recent history, it’s almost absurd to consider any game easy, but a coach is always wary. When the season started, most every team probably looked at the Browns as their gimme game -- including Jacksonville, which beat the Browns a year ago.

“There are reasons why there are people out there saying that this is probably the week for Jacksonville,” Pettine said. “All the circumstances where you would say this is a trap game, and I think as a staff, we’re just as curious to see. We’ll talk about it all week, but we’re curious to see how we will come out of the gate as well. We’re confident. We’re hopeful and confident that we’ll handle it the right way, but this is a big test for us.”

Pettine’s track record indicates this is not simply coach-talk. He is legitimately aware of the pratfalls of facing a winless team -- and no doubt he’s aware how losing to a winless team would erase some of the gains made in the win over Pittsburgh.
BEREA, Ohio – For all the positive vibes coming out of Cleveland, cautious optimists are bracing for the next challenges hurtled the Browns’ way.

These are the Browns. And this is Cleveland. The fans have good reason for a fatalistic attitude toward most Browns teams because of their past, even if Week 7's opponent is winless Jacksonville.

First, the good news: There’s a lot to like about this Browns team. Stout running game. Impressive offensive line. A quarterback who thrives in play-action and has one interception in 149 attempts. A defense that’s finally shrugging off a sluggish start. A locker room that offensive guard John Greco says has “just a feel, maybe a different level of confidence” than last year’s team, which started 3-2 before losing 10 of the last 11.

[+] EnlargeSen'Derrick Marks
AP Photo/Chris SzagolaSen'Derrick Marks and the Jaguars have 19 sacks through six games.
Now, the challenge: Jacksonville has 19 sacks this season and often gets to the quarterback by rushing four, meaning eight defenders will be waiting patiently in that box for Ben Tate, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West on running plays.

If the Jaguars can thwart the run and stave off play-action, Brian Hoyer must get it done from the pocket with his receivers.

Tight end Jordan Cameron and receivers Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins must win on third down. That simple.

Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan seems to be ready for anything.

“No matter what you do good, eventually a team will stop that,” Shanahan said. “There’s no doubt about that, and you’ve got to be able to counteract that. Once you can do that, then you can come back to what you want to do.”

Based on last week’s 38 runs to 17 passes, clearly what the Browns want is to hand it off early and often.

Losing center Alex Mack to a leg injury is a “huge blow,” Shanahan said, which leaves Greco – who filled in for Mack admirably last week against Pittsburgh – directing the running game and getting everybody lined up properly. Paul McQuistan likely steps in at guard for Greco.

Here’s why Ben Tate is so crucial for the offense: In the two games he missed, Browns averaged 3.4 yards per carry (102 yards on 30 attempts per game). In three games with Tate, those averages spike to 5.0 yards per carry (175 yards on 35 carries). Tate left one of those games early, but still had 41 yards on six carries in Week 1.

If Tate can set the tone again, the Browns can soften up the Jaguars’ defense with Crowell, Cameron and others.
BEREA, Ohio -- There may be a partial explanation for the early struggles this season of Cleveland Browns linebacker Barkevious Mingo.

Browns coach Mike Pettine said Mingo has been playing since the opener with a harness on his right shoulder to protect an undisclosed injury.

“He’ll probably have to end up having to wear it all year,” Pettine said Thursday.

Mingo said there is nothing structurally wrong with his shoulder, indicating no tear or displacement, but he admits playing with the harness does affect him even though he wears it to protect himself from further injury.

“It limits the range of motion,” he said. “Tries to keep me out of the positions that irritate it.”

He added he would not use it as an excuse; it’s just something he has to play through.

The protection didn’t fully work against Pittsburgh, as Mingo had to go to the sideline in pain at one point due to an obvious hit on the shoulder.

Harnesses are commonly designed to keep a player from overusing a seriously bruised shoulder. Often, they do not let a player raise his arm over his shoulder; Mingo wouldn’t get into it, but it appears that is the case with his harness.

That might explain some of why Mingo isn’t producing the way he was in preseason when he was healthy -- he has just 12 tackles and no sacks so far this season.

He started the opener but missed the second game with the injury and has been playing -- with limitations -- since.

"“When you get hurt early in the season or injured early in the season in football, it’s not going away until the offseason," defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil said. "It’s really not. It’s something that you’ve got to learn to play with. It’s something that you’ve got to learn to manage and deal with throughout the course of the season.

"It’s just too violent of a sport to ever get healthy, especially at the position he plays at. He’s done a great job managing it. I’m sure it gives him problems at times throughout the course of the game. You’ll have to ask him, probably, if it’s bothering him at times or if it doesn’t. What we’re asking him to do, he’s able to execute it and get it done.”
BEREA, Ohio -- Is one game enough to say the Cleveland Browns defense has turned the corner?

Probably not. Eleven games remain in the season.

But the defense did show encouraging signs in the victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, as two linemen who were inactive the week before performed well (Ishmaa'ily Kitchen and John Hughes) and the defense held the Steelers to 10 points, seven on a late touchdown, when the game was well decided.

[+] EnlargeBrowns Defense
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsThe Browns defense seems to have turned a corner in the last six quarters, but sees plenty of room for improvement.
Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said the last six quarters have been very important for his group. They show the Browns have given up 440 yards (81 in the second half against Tennessee) and 10 points.

Project those numbers to a full season and the Browns would be giving up 293 yards and seven points per game. Detroit leads the league in total defense and points at 280 yards and 13.7 points per game.

That means the Browns have defended very well the last game-and-a-half. There's an argument that Titans quarterback Charlie Whitehurst’s presence helped against Tennessee, but one would counter that Ben Roethlisberger is as good as there is. The numbers simply matter.

Tennessee had six possessions, Pittsburgh 10. The Browns held the opposing offense to 20 yards or less 10 times, 10 or less seven times and to negative yards three times.

“Those six quarters,” defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said, “have been big for us.”

It also fits the patterns for Mike Pettine and O'Neil-led defenses, that things click after a few games. That’s what happened in New York with the Jets and in Buffalo, and it’s what the coaches hope happens in Cleveland.

Where can the Browns improve defensively?

Take the numbers as a five-game aggregate and it’s evident the biggest growth could come on first down. Through five games, opponents are averaging 6.2 yards per carry and 9.2 per pass attempt on first down. The total average: 8.4 yards per play. That clearly has put the defense in tough situations.

The league average is 6.5 yards per play on first down, 7.1 yards per attempt and 4.2 yards per carry on first down. The Browns are worse than the league average in all three categories, and improving on first down will help them improve on second and third downs because it will make the defensive pass-rush groupings more effective.
ClEVELAND -- The Browns are Brian Hoyer’s team right now, but at least one quarterback believes Johnny Manziel would provide quality relief if necessary.

Connor Shaw, on the practice squad as the Browns’ No. 3 quarterback, said Manziel has improved steadily since training camp, most notably his transition from a college offense to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s pro-style set.

“If he had to play this season, I think he’d be ready to go,” said Shaw, about Manziel’s readiness in case Hoyer got hurt, citing Manziel's growing comfort with the offense.

In the preseason, the Browns gave Manziel and Shaw zone-read looks to fit their skill sets and their college background. But Shaw said “both of us have adapted to the offense pretty well” since then.

Without starter’s reps, Manziel and Shaw have studied together in recent weeks. Hoyer has helped with that process, too, giving Manziel and Shaw tips on how to be a pro and learning the nuances of the game, Shaw said.

“I think it’s been awesome for both of us,” Shaw said. “We’ve been able to help each other.”

If the Browns keep a respectable record and/or Hoyer continues his steady pace – he’s eyeing a 4,000-yard season while playing turnover-free football – there’d be no reason to make a quarterback change. But it sounds like Manziel is using his time as a backup productively, just in case.

Of the top four quarterbacks in May’s draft, Manziel is the only one not starting right now. The other three teams had subpar quarterback situations upon their arrival, however, and Cleveland does not.
The Cleveland Browns are on a bit of a roll. So are the Jacksonville Jaguars, only it’s in the opposite direction.

The Browns (3-2) have won back-to-back games in dramatic fashion, first rallying from a 25-point deficit to beat Tennessee on the road and thumping the Pittsburgh Steelers by 21 points last Sunday in Cleveland. Now they’re being talked about as legitimate contenders for a playoff spot in the AFC.

The Jaguars (0-6) haven’t won a game since Dec. 5, 2013, and they’re being talked about as the favorite for the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2015.

The teams meet Sunday at EverBank Field; Browns reporter Pat McManamon and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco break down the matchup.

DiRocco: Pat, I think everyone outside the Cleveland organization expected Johnny Manziel to be the Browns’ starting quarterback by this point in the season. Brian Hoyer has done a good job, though, and it’s clearly his team now. But what about beyond this season? Is Manziel the franchise quarterback or is it Hoyer?

McManamon: If Hoyer keeps playing the way he has, it would be folly if the Browns did not re-sign him in the offseason. That puts Manziel in the spot of perhaps having to enter the 2015 training camp as the backup, and perhaps be the backup for the foreseeable future. Eleven games remain and a lot can happen yet, but to this point Hoyer is earning the right to be considered the long-term answer. He gets rid of the ball quickly. He does not throw interceptions. His even-keeled approach makes him a good leader. And the team respects him. Because Hoyer can be a free agent after the season, and because negotiations went nowhere in the offseason and Hoyer chose to bet on himself, this will be a closely watched story as the season progresses. But if Hoyer maintains his level of play, it would be impossible for the Browns to let the local product go.

This is rookie-quarterback weekend, Mike, and since everyone asks me about Manziel, I'll ask you about Blake Bortles. How has he played, what impresses you most and how far does he have to go?

DiRocco: Since being inserted into the lineup in the second half of the Week 3 loss to Indianapolis, Bortles has played pretty well and leads NFL rookies in passing yards per game (251), completion percentage (67.8) and completions of 20-plus yards (11). He has shown that he has a good feel in the pocket and is able to evade the rush and get outside when he needs to. When he does that, he’s keeping his eyes downfield, too, which is rare for a rookie quarterback that can run. Usually, they just take off. Plus, the coaching staff can’t stop raving about his poise and how unshakable he is. The thing that has impressed me the most has been his work on third down. The Jaguars were 6-for-32 on third down under Chad Henne but are 23-for-46 on third down under Bortles, and he leads the NFL in completion percentage on third down (71.0). Bortles is far from perfect. He still makes bad decisions, stares down receivers and throws some bad passes, but he already looks like the best quarterback the team has had since Mark Brunell in the late 1990s.

Losing Alex Mack was obviously a huge blow. We know what kind of effect that will have on the field, but how do you think it will impact the team in the locker room, considering he was one of the team’s leaders, especially this week?

McManamon: The respect that Mack has in the locker room and around the league was evident the day he was injured, so it matters that he’s not around. But Mack was never a vocal yeller or screamer. His leadership came from his consistency and his dependability. Losing his voice in the locker room matters, but as one scout told me during the week, that sometimes is overstated. The Browns have guys such as Joe Thomas and Hoyer and even John Greco who can step in. The team’s bigger issue is filling the void left on the field.

It's been a long time since there was a game in which the Browns looked like a favorite. But when a 3-2 team faces an 0-6 team, that's the appearance. What's the Jaguars' attitude toward this game, and is there any advantage to them playing at home?

DiRocco: The Jaguars are as optimistic as they have been all season because they’ve been close the past two weeks against Pittsburgh and Tennessee. It was late mistakes that cost them in each game, and the players know they could have won both games had they played marginally better. A lot of the players on this team were on last year’s team that beat the Browns in Cleveland on a late touchdown pass, and this year’s Browns are without Mack and receiver Josh Gordon. I don’t see the Jaguars having any kind of advantage playing at EverBank Field. The weather has cooled a bit so the heat won’t be a factor for the Browns.

The Cleveland defense is among the NFL’s worst when it comes to total yards and rushing yards, but it has been among the league’s best in the red zone. Why are Browns so good inside the 20 but struggling everywhere else?

McManamon: Good question, and I’m not sure I or the team can answer. Perhaps there’s a greater sense of urgency, perhaps the field shrinks for the opposition and perhaps it’s that the coaches call better plays. But it is hugely important, because coach Mike Pettine believes the most important statistic for a defense after wins is points allowed. The defense swung the momentum in the win over Pittsburgh by twice holding the Steelers to field goal attempts after two good drives. Pittsburgh made the first kick, but a botched hold on the second changed the feel of the game, and the Browns took advantage. Whatever the reason for the red zone success, the Browns just hope it continues.

How close do you think the Jaguars are to winning consistently?

DiRocco: Now that they appear to have found their quarterback, that timetable is accelerated a bit, but the Jaguars are still two years away from being a team that can compete for a playoff spot. While Bortles might be able to make up for some deficiencies in the roster, the Jaguars are still the least talented team in the league. After addressing the offense heavily in the draft this offseason, I expect them to attack the defense next offseason. If they draft well, add some key free agents and Bortles continues to develop, then this could be a six- or seven-win team in 2014 and challenge Indianapolis in the division in 2016.

BEREA, Ohio -- Brian Hoyer angrily refuted an online video opinion that he would not accept a new contract in Cleveland if Johnny Manziel is on the team.

“It couldn’t be further from the truth,” Hoyer said Wednesday of a video discussion about his future. “There’s no accurate information. ... From here on out my main focus is on Jacksonville.”

Hoyer’s pointed retort came two days he was was asked about the video. His answer then was that he wants to stay in Cleveland, but he also wants to play -- which isn’t exactly earth-shattering. On Monday he had not seen the video, but he looked it up online after being queried about it.

He said from this point he’s not talking about his contract situation.

“You guys want to talk about that (his upcoming free agency and contract), you can talk to the guys upstairs or my agent Joe Linta ... I think some of you know,” Hoyer said. “From here on out I’m on to Jacksonville.”

In the video, the opinion was presented that if Manziel is in Cleveland Hoyer would would be concerned. Linta said this week that “Johnny Manziel will have no impact on any discussions we may have with the Browns" and added that Hoyer’s status and his future contract will play out the rest of the season.

Hoyer clearly was trying to end continuing contract talk and speculation, and he did so firmly. Coach Mike Pettine admitted earlier in the day that letting that linger could become a distraction.

“It can be if we allow it to be,” Pettine said. “To me, that’s generated externally. Internally we’re focused on the task at hand.

“You have to deal with issues, distractions along the way. Distractions come in all shapes and sizes. When you talk about dealing with success, dealing with prosperity. OK, now you have a guy who’s playing well. Look at his contract situation. That’s just an example of that.

“Brian will be the first to tell you he’s focused on this game. If things weren’t going well, we’d be dealing with a different set of distractions. It’s just part of the external noise that will test our ability to stay focused.”
BEREA, Ohio -- When pondering the future of quarterback Brian Hoyer, all that needs to be remembered is that famous jersey that lists all the names of the Cleveland Browns' starting quarterbacks since 1999.

Said list goes down the back and nearly to the ground -- with 20 different names.

Given the names on that list, the question has to be asked: After so many struggles at the position, how in the world (and why) would the Browns let a good one go?

The only reason they would at this point is the potential of Johnny Manziel.

But as NFL types often say, potential gets coaches fired. Manziel has not shown enough post-college for the Browns to be sure of what they have. Hoyer has eight starts and 11 more games this season.

With Hoyer playing on an expiring contract, the Browns will have an intriguing situation as the season progresses -- provided Hoyer stays healthy and maintains his level of play.

Right now, his strengths are evident: preparation, poise, smarts, the ability to get rid of the ball quickly, the ability to feel the rush and a calm that spreads to the team.

[+] EnlargeBrian Hoyer, Johnny Manziel
Billy Delfs for ESPNWill the Browns retain starter Brian Hoyer, whose contract expires at the end of the year, as their QB or bank their future on rookie Johnny Manziel?
He seems smallish for a quarterback and doesn't have the arm strength of a Ben Roethlisberger or Tom Brady, but Hoyer's numbers speak for his ability -- especially the one that says the Browns are averaging 26.8 points per game.

Which is why Hoyer's agent Joe Linta this week echoed what he told The Associated Press on Monday: Manziel's presence has no impact on Hoyer's negotiations.

Because Hoyer will earn what he earns based on his play, not the presence of any particular backup.

Hoyer already has bet on himself by turning down a deal before the season that would have paid him high-scale backup money. It's a gamble that has paid off to date, but if he struggles the next three weeks against bad teams and then against Cincinnati, it won't help his cause. If he succeeds, though, the numbers on his deal will grow.

One league insider who has seen numerous negotiations said the deal may go this way -- though all is speculation: The Browns try to leverage Manziel and offer a deal worth perhaps $9 million per year for four years, adding incentives so Hoyer is paid if he performs well. That would not go far with Hoyer's team, though, which would seek something closer to the average of Alex Smith's deal in Kansas City -- $15 million per season.

What the market would pay is the key. Hoyer is 29, coming off an ACL surgery and has been a starter for just eight games. That might lead to a four-year, $40 million deal with incentives and perhaps $20 million guaranteed, the insider guessed.

Hoyer's side might counter that it takes only one team to dwarf those numbers and that quarterbacks are paid at a premium. Linta played the same game of chicken with the Ravens, and Joe Flacco won a Super Bowl and earned a huge deal.

If Hoyer leads the Browns to nine or 10 wins, they may feel the same urgency to keep him.

Smith's extension averages $17 million per year, but his deal had one year left, so it averages $15 million -- with $45 million guaranteed. San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick's deal averages $19 million a year with $61 million guaranteed. Andy Dalton averages $16 million per year with $17 million guaranteed.

Is Hoyer better or worse than Smith or Dalton? Is there a difference between the trio other than number of starts? That's what the sides must determine.

Manziel adds an interesting twist. If the Browns commit to Hoyer, they could play hardball with Manziel because he is under contract through 2017 (with a team option for 2018) at a reasonable salary.

The team could simply say: Hoyer's our starter, Manziel waits.

But would Manziel accept being a backup, or might he ask for a trade?

It's an interesting labyrinth, one the Browns are being led right into with every good game Hoyer plays and every game they win.