The Browns are hungry for a two-game win streak to close a 2022 season that won't end with a trip to the playoffs, and that process starts Sunday in Landover, Maryland, against the Commanders, a 7-7-1 team that desperately needs a win to keep their own playoff hopes alive.
Cleveland wants to play spoiler — and also build momentum into the offseason after the disappointing year. Even without the playoffs on the line for the Browns, the game is still an important one before they close the season next week at Pittsburgh.
Here are the biggest questions that highlight why the game is still critical for Cleveland:
1. Will offense perform better under warmer weather conditions?
One of the most frustrating aspects of last week's loss against the Saints was that the Browns weren't able to find much offensive success, particularly when they passed the ball.
The pass game was always going to be a challenge for the Browns, though, with a kickoff temperature of 6 degrees and winds swirling around FirstEnergy Stadium all afternoon. QB Deshaun Watson completed 15 of 31 pass attempts for 135 yards and an interception. The Browns' only touchdown was a 12-yard run from Watson, who has manufactured three touchdowns, two of them through the air, in his first four starts with the Browns.
"Offensively, especially as the quarterback, we want to score more points," he said. "Not just for me, but for the whole offense. We want to score points and put ourselves in position to put a game away and help our defense out and our special teams out. I know it's a team game and we have to complement each other, but we can help ourselves offensively."
Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said players had to be graded on a curve last week because of the blustery, arctic conditions against the Saints. With normal weather this week, he expects to see the offense perform more efficiently.
"I think we're ready for that," he said. "We just need to see continued improvement. I think if we can put the ball into the end zone, we would all be a lot happier. It's a really good defense we're playing, especially up front. Our challenges are there, but we should definitely see more productivity out of us, especially as we get down in the red zone. We haven't scored when we have gotten down there like we should."
Despite the low scoring outputs, Watson has looked more comfortable operating the offense since his first start in Week 13 in Houston and has delivered more accurate throws. Three of his well-placed passes were dropped in the end zone last week. WR Amari Cooper slipped on the icy, frozen grass as he was looking to catch one in the back of the end zone, while WR Donovan Peoples-Jones and TE David Njoku each dropped passes that would've gone for six points on the Browns' final drive of the game.
With temperatures expected to be in the 50s at FedEx Field, the Browns should be able to find much more success completing passes.
"I'm always expecting that," Watson said. "We don't go into a game not thinking that, regardless of the weather. Last week, we thought that we could put up however many points that we can. Once those opportunities come, we have to take advantage of that. We can't force the issue. We have to do the little things and make sure we have our opportunities to get down there to even put up points."
Check out photos of players and coaches working to prepare for the teams regular season game against the Washington Commanders
2. Can the defense spoil Wentz's big start?
The Commanders made a QB switch this week as they look to kickstart their offense and stay alive in the playoff chase with QB Carson Wentz stepping under center for the first time since Week 6.
Wentz will relieve Taylor Heinicke, who had started the last nine games for the Commanders after Wentz suffered a finger injury. Wentz became the backup to Heinicke even after he recovered, but a slow offensive start for Washington last week against the 49ers led to another change from head coach Ron Rivera.
CB Greg Newsome II offered some poignant analysis on the differences between the two QBs.
"Heinicke is that play-action type of quarterback," he said. "Smaller guy, so he's a play-action type of dude. He can really throw the deep ball really well. He's an improviser, kind of like Russell Wilson, where a lot of stuff breaks down and he's able to use his legs.
"Carson Wentz, obviously a big arm, strong arm guy, straight-in-his-dropback type of guy. Not really that play-action pass type of dude. They're both good quarterbacks, but you can tell when one is in versus the other. The offense is going to be a little bit different."
Wentz has been sacked a whopping 23 times in seven games this season, including nine sacks in Week 3 against the Eagles. Wentz, however, was not sacked in 16 dropbacks last week against the 49ers. He completed 12 of those pass attempts for 123 yards and one touchdown.
The Commanders will likely run the ball plenty, too, against the Browns' 25th-ranked run defense and look to continue a trend they've followed all season in winning the possession game. Washington leads the league in average time of possession with 32:51.
The No. 2 team? The Browns at 32:04.
One way for the Browns to take control of the game on defense, though, will be to apply plenty of pressure to Wentz when the Commanders do pass — and attempt to take the ball away.
"He does tend to hold the ball sometimes, but we have to get the ball out of his hands," DE Myles Garrett said. "They're definitely still looking forward to running the ball. They've had success. They have a winning formula in keeping time of possession and marching down the field slowly but surely and getting points on the board.
"We have to force them to lean on him in the pass game, and then we have to get after them. It's no guarantee that he does hold the ball, but we have to find a way to take the ball away from him, whether it's picking it off or stripping him."
3. Will Browns rest any starters?
Head coach Kevin Stefanski doesn't plan to rest anyone with the playoffs no longer possible. That includes RB Nick Chubb, who said himself this week that he doesn't plan to rest despite battling a foot injury.
It is possible, however, that the Browns give a few added snaps to younger players on the roster.
"I think practice reps are valuable, but anytime you can get young guys in game settings and see them respond, yeah, I think it's good," Stefanski said. "We have had a lot of young guys play for us. Going back to Week 1, guys have stepped up and played a lot of football. I really try to evaluate all of it from the meeting rooms to the practice field to the game field. Yes, of course, two more games to see how guys respond in certain settings I think is important.
"We will make decisions on players, like you mentioned. Guys may get a couple more opportunities. Bottom line is we are going to do everything we can to try to win this game. That is really where our focus is. If a young guy warrants getting some extra plays, he might."