AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) — There’s no coaching change on the horizon. The Johnny Manziel-must-play chants have quieted — for the moment — and for the first time since 1994, when a young, hoodie-wearing Bill Belichick coached them, the Browns have at least six wins in their first nine games.
And Cleveland is showing early symptoms of playoff fever.
Laughable losers for years, these Browns are no joke.
With a dominating win on Thursday night in Cincinnati, the Browns (6-3) moved into a tie with Pittsburgh atop the AFC North and pushed themselves into the playoff conversation. They’re legit, and a national TV audience got a chance to see firsthand that this is a Cleveland team to be taken seriously.
“I know last night came as a surprise to people outside,” rookie coach Mike Pettine said Friday, “but it didn’t come as a surprise to us.”
The Browns took it to the Bengals from the start, ending a 17-game road losing streak inside their division and validating their record after a three-week stretch of games against Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay, teams a combined 2-23. No, this wasn’t a grind-it-out-just-get-by victory. This was a quality win over a quality opponent.
Cleveland’s rushing game, which had stalled the past few weeks following a season-ending injury to Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, churned out 170 yards with three running backs scoring touchdowns. The Browns defense forced four turnovers, including three interceptions of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who finished with an embarrassing 2.0 passer rating.
And Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer, playing without three of his top receivers, improved to 9-3 as a starter. He also won over a few more of those Cleveland fans who still believe Manziel would be doing better.
There’s a lot of football left to be played, but the Browns are showing signs of a team getting better by the week.
Browns safety Donte Whitner and his teammates know they can play with anyone, but such a complete win will only boost Cleveland’s esteem as the season progresses and the games become more meaningful.
“It’s huge,” Whitner said. “I think a win like last night on a national stage in the fashion in which we won you can only breed confidence from that. We understand that the teams that make it to the playoffs and win and advance are the teams that get hot in November and get hot at the right time. We just want to get hot at the right time, and last night was a good start to that.”
Whitner grew up in Cleveland and knows what the Browns mean to the city. He spent part of Friday at a barber shop where more than razors were buzzing as Browns fans talked about celebrating until the wee hours after a regular-season win. Cleveland is fired up about a team opening eyes nationally.
“It means everything to me,” Whitner said. “That’s the reason I came here. Anybody that’s from anywhere and has any pride about where they’re from, they would love the opportunity to come to their hometown and win. Not only win — it’s about the people of the city and making the people happy. … That’s why we do this. That’s why I do what I do. That’s why it’s good to be home.”
Pettine has been careful not to make more of Cleveland’s strong start. He has preached a game-by-game ethos to his players, reminding them that if they do their work and take care of that week’s opponent, bigger goals are reachable — the playoffs are possible.
“It was our goal at the beginning of the year,” he said. “We wanted to be a playoff team. Why not us? We talked about the number of teams that had gone from worst to first in the division and the number of teams that didn’t make the playoffs one year, but made them the next. We weren’t going to hide from it, but at the same time they have to know in order to accomplish that, we have to be extraordinary, extraordinary each week.
“As long as you talk about playoffs in the context of the next game is the most important one and it’s a step toward that direction then I think it’s OK. I think it’s a mistake if you just ignore it.”
These Browns can no longer be ignored.
NOTES: Whitner had strong comments for Bengals running back Jeremy Hill, who ripped the Browns following the game by saying, “they’re probably worse than I thought.” Whitner didn’t like that. “That’s a rookie, so you can’t really take his words as anything other than pure ignorance and being a sore loser,” he said. “I’m just going to take it as ignorance and know that we will see them again.” The Bengals visit the Browns on Dec. 14. … Pettine’s former boss, Jets coach Rex Ryan, is happy to see the Browns’ success. “That’s awesome, fantastic,” Ryan said of the Browns’ start. “He has done a heck of a job there. I got to see them play a little last night and, just, wow. That team is really playing well. They’re really getting after it. They ran it like 55 times or something. It was great to see that old-school football.”
AP Sports Writer Dennis Waszak Jr. in Florham Park, New Jersey contributed to this report.
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