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Browns Mailbag: Assessing how the Browns can pull off upsets down the stretch

The home stretch is on the horizon, but the Browns are talking like a team that is doing anything but looking ahead to the offseason.

That's the vibe that's permeated the Browns Training Facility in Berea since the start of the week.

On with the questions!

Can the Browns pull off two huge upsets these next two weeks? - Aaron C., Lebanon, Missouri

It's a tall task, no doubt, but the Browns got the kind of performance necessary Sunday to enter this daunting three-game stretch with as much momentum as possible.

An argument can be made Cleveland's three-game finale to the season, as it stands, lines the team up against three teams that have been among the NFL's best over the past month. Starting Sunday, the Browns face a Seattle team that has won four straight, outscored its last two opponents by a combined 60 points and not allowed a touchdown on defense since Week 12. Kansas City has the NFL's second-longest winning streak at seven games. Pittsburgh has won four of its last five and scored 30 or more points in all five.

With Kansas City and Pittsburgh, both of which trail their respective division leader by multiple games, the AFC playoffs truly run through Cleveland. Both the Chiefs and Steelers are 8-5 and need to win two of their final three to feel good about a playoff spot. Even then, if the Jets continue to win, nothing short of a three-game sweep to end the year is safe.

Browns coach Mike Pettine stressed Monday the team wasn't thinking beyond Seattle.

"We know that this is a formidable opponent in one of the most hostile environments in the league. We're going to go up there and cut it loose," Pettine said. "We're going to have a great deal of respect for them, but we're not going to be intimidated by them. We're going to plan to travel out there and play a good football game."

His words seemed to already sink in to the players, two of whom discussed the underdog role Monday more than they have at any point in the season.

"We've always been the underdog in everything we've done, so it's nothing new to us," linebacker Armonty Bryant said. "We're just going to take the same approach we did last week and come out there and get after it."

Here's one key for springing an upset in each of the final three games:

Seattle - Keep it close in the fourth quarter. All five of Seattle's losses have been decided by 10 or fewer points. The Seahawks' eight wins are by an average margin of 16.5.

Kansas City - Force turnovers. Quarterback Alex Smith has thrown just one interception during Kansas City's seven-game winning streak, and it came Sunday in a game the Chiefs nearly lost to the three-win Chargers.

Pittsburgh - Expose the secondary - To hang with the Steelers, points and yards are essential. Pittsburgh ranks 31st in the NFL in pass defense.

Connor Shaw has always played exceptional football when healthy. Is there any chance he will get a "good look" at becoming a starter? - Brad C., Angola, Indiana

Shaw has been working hard despite missing the entire season with a thumb injury. He's been an integral part of the quarterbacks room and should be back in the on-field mix when the offseason begins.

With Isaiah Crowell struggling so much this year, why don't we use Duke Johnson more as a runner? - J.B., Indianapolis

This question was submitted before Crowell ran for a career-high 145 yards against the 49ers, but it's still worth addressing. Johnson has been an important piece to the Browns offense and it's gone well beyond the duties of traditional carries. With the multiple injuries at receiver, Johnson has been asked to take on pass-catching responsibilities at an even higher level than before. He's also a good change of pace behind Crowell, who is a more traditional, between-the-tackles runner. What occurred Sunday, when Crowell ran 20 times for 145 and Johnson chipped in with 13 for 78, is the ideal mix.

Why are we still using zone blocking on the offensive line? It seems to me that's our problem. - Jeff B., Springfield, Ohio

This question was addressed during Pettine's Monday conference call. To sum up his explanation, the Browns were heavier on outside zone blocking to start the season but have adjusted in recent weeks.

Can the Browns please play and feature Terrelle Pryor, Dwayne Bowe and E.J. Bibbs? I cannot understand that when we are so depleted at receiver that these players are not playing significant snaps. - William W., Bedford

Pryor picked up 16 snaps in his Browns debut Sunday and is expected to see his role increase in the wake of Brian Hartline's season-ending injury. Bibbs has seen the field more of late after being inactive throughout the first half of the year. Bowe has a shot to be active Sunday at Seattle.

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