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Cup of Joe: Opportunities don't get much better than this

In his weekly column, Joe Thomas explains why the Browns earned the right to control their playoff destiny heading into their Week 17 showdown with the Steelers

So many bad things happened to the Browns on Saturday and Sunday that it's easy to sit there and pout about the situation.

Excuses, though, are for losers, and these Browns are winners. That's been clear all season, and it was clear in the moments after Sunday's disappointing loss to the Jets. Kevin Stefanski and players, alike, offered no excuses for an inexcusable performance — no matter who was or wasn't on the field.

There's simply too much to be excited about to put one more second of thought into it. So I'm not going to, and you can bet the Browns haven't for days.

The great coaching staffs, the great teams, are the ones that can quickly accept the reality of their situation and then put a positive spin on it, set that mindset and chart their course with a winning attitude. That means right now, instead of complaining about their situation, they're going to be looking at Sunday's game like, "What a great opportunity this is. Yeah, we don't like what happened last weekend, but that's behind us. We can't do anything about that now. But that has set up a great opportunity for us to start our playoffs right now to go to beat Pittsburgh, get into the playoffs against our biggest rival, get revenge for a loss that happened earlier in the season and be able to play in a Week 17 game where you control your own destiny.

This is, unfortunately, something I never got to experience. I went through the opposite, though, as our fleeting playoff hopes in 2007 hinged on the result of another game — and let me tell you, it's not fun.

Going into the last week of my rookie season, even though we were 9-6, it was totally meaningless. No matter what happened with our game against the 49ers, it didn't matter because what happened between Tennessee and Indianapolis later that night determined if we made the playoffs or we didn't (We didn't). Having that helpless feeling is a situation that no football player wants to be in. You always want to be able to control your own destiny, you want to be able to control the situation.

The Browns, through what they accomplished to this point of the season, have earned that control, and it just so happens to come with their biggest rival standing in the way. And this is a much different team than the one Pittsburgh saw way back in Week 6.

The Browns have been growing and making positive changes in leaps and bounds, and that's been the story of this team in spades. Forget last week: They've been playing their best football as of late because they have so many young guys learning so much. At the beginning of the season, I said the Browns will get better from Week 1 to Week 17 more than anybody else because nobody's situation is more ripe for it. A first-time head coach is only going to get better. It's the first time in the offense and defense for the players. On top of that, the team just has a bunch of young guys. We've got guys throughout the league that are in their 40s that have been doing this for two decades, and they're still improving.

That's one of the biggest things Stefanski can sell to the team this week. I can picture it now.

"Hey, we're a different team than last time we played the Steelers and this is an exciting opportunity to prove to the Steelers that we're a different team. You should be giddy with excitement to prove to the Steelers that you are a different team and that team that lost last time doesn't exist anymore, especially when you might see this team again next week in the playoffs, or at some point in the playoffs. This is your opportunity to jump on top of them and maybe get them thinking in their head, 'I don't know if we want to see them again in the playoffs. I don't know if we can beat this team. They're that good.'"

We've talked about it, really, for the last two weeks for the Browns — this current week that we are in, this is the most important game the Browns have ever played in since the franchise came back in 1999. It was the same thing against the Jets and now it's the same thing this week. Even the team that made the playoffs in 2002 didn't really have a shot to make much of a run after sneaking in with a 9-7 record.

But these Browns, if they get in the playoffs, they have a legitimate shot to be legitimate contenders. There's nobody in the AFC that you say the Browns don't have a chance against. I mean, even the No. 1 seed Chiefs are beating people by two points. So for Browns players and for fans, you get into the dance, you have a serious, legitimate chance, as good as anybody else in the AFC.

To be able to get yourself into that position, you have to win this weekend. And to have that opportunity at home against the Steelers in Week 17, that's what fairy tales are made of.

Check out the best photos from the Browns game against the Jets yesterday by the Browns photo team