The Browns have officially entered their most important stretch of the season.
It arrived earlier than they might have initially expected when they looked at the schedule before the year began, but a three-game losing streak will change a team's perspective quickly. The Browns are looking to snap one of those skids now, and they need to do it against two AFC North opponents in the next two games to uphold their hopes of remaining in the playoff picture after a bye in Week 9.
"I think it really comes down to a playoff mindset for us," OT Jack Conklin said. "It's about winning. We still have the division ahead of us, and if we win those games, they can't keep us out of the playoffs. We have to go into that mindset now."
A mindset, however, is just that, and the Browns need more than only a refined focus to correct the problems that have resulted in four losses — all of which can be categorized as disappointing and frustrating.
On defense, the Browns have yet to overcome issues that were apparent from the get-go in Week 1 and haven't built a full four-quarter performance yet. Cleveland showed improvement against the run in Sunday's loss to New England by holding Patriots RB Rhamondre Stevenson to 76 yards on 19 carries, but any sort of growth from that area was overshadowed by third-string rookie QB Bailey Zappe throwing for 306 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The Browns doomed themselves with busted coverages and poor tackling, and those areas are again something they'll address this week as they prepare for a Ravens offense led by an elusive, strong-armed QB in Lamar Jackson.
"At the end of the day, there are a lot of mistakes going on on the field — a lot of big plays, downs and first downs — and it's killing us," Myles Garrett said. "We're getting ourselves behind, and we're taking ourselves out of ball games that we have a chance to win. We just have to hold each other accountable."
Check out the best photos from the Browns game against the Patriots yesterday by the Browns photo team
Offensively, the Browns have to pick themselves up from their least productive game of the year.
Cleveland's 15 points against New England were the lowest output yet this season. The Browns generated just 70 yards with their league-leading run game, and RB Nick Chubb was given only 12 carries as the Browns turned to the pass game to catch up against the Patriots, who had a 24-6 lead by the end of the third quarter.
The Patriots forced the Browns to throw the ball, and the plan worked — Jacoby Brissett threw two interceptions, fumbled once and was sacked four times. His 54.5 passer rating was his lowest of the year, and the giveaways resulted in the Browns losing the turnover battle, 4-1 (punt returner Chester Rogers accounted for one of those turnovers with a muffed punt).
"We can't turn the ball over," Stefanski said. "That's obvious. Jacoby knows that. Really as a team, we have to do way better both taking care of the ball and getting the ball. More than anything, I think Jacoby understands his role and his job is to operate in this offense, but ultimately, we can't turn it over."
The offense needs to rebound against a Ravens defense that ranks 25th in the league — one spot worse than the Browns — in total defense. Then, they need to keep it going in Week 8 against a Bengals defense that ranks 14th in the league in that category.
"This week is the most important week of the season," Brissett said. "It's all we have. It's going to take complete focus and commitment from this group, and I think that's what we'll get."
The focus and commitment need to turn into winning results, though, and that's proven to be easier said than done for the Browns at 2-4.
The silver-lining of that record? One of those wins were against the Steelers, giving the Browns a 1-0 record in the division that could help in the event of a tie-breaker at the end of the season. Cleveland needs to stack as many of those as possible to have a shot at the playoffs.
It starts with channeling a playoff mentality for the next two weeks.
"It's earlier than you'd like to, but we still have a chance," Conklin said. "Our destiny is in front of us."