1) The Browns are 5-3. Three Pro Bowlers on offense have been missing for a large chunk of the season (Alex Mack, Jordan Cameron and Josh Gordon). It took a month for the defense to really hit its stride. Injuries have cut the defensive line rotation in half. Undrafted free agents are playing critical roles late in games. And let's repeat this again: the Browns are 5-3.
2) By no means is the team celebrating the 5-3 record like it's worth an achievement, but the players and coaches deserve to be proud of their effort thus far. You don't often find a first-year head coach and young staff successfully ripping out a decaying culture and replacing it so swiftly to form a group of 53-men who believe this team can beat anybody they play. Do you think the Bengals are excited to play the Browns on Thursday? Maybe they would've been in years past. But these Browns don't have the same reputation anymore. First place is on the line in front of a nationally televised audience in November. This will become the expectation each season from a Mike Pettine coached team going forward.
3) So the wins have come in ugly fashion against the Raiders and Buccaneers. That's really not a reason to complain. If you are mad about ugly wins, are you also happy about pretty losses, like in Weeks 1 and 3 against Baltimore and Pittsburgh? If you get caught up in the minutia of each win, you'll drive yourself crazy. There's a reason Pettine has a rule about watching film: you can only rewind each play three times. There are a dozen or more bad plays every game. You can't overthink every so-so snap. Good teams can survive bad plays, by making clutch ones when it matters more
4) And guess what: good teams often win ugly. The Bengals, who are also beset by injuries, and who have three straight playoff appearances won a clunker of a game Sunday against Jacksonville. When Pettine was with the New York Jets, those teams usually won ugly – on their way to back-to-back AFC Championship berths with an inexperienced quarterback. Don't let fantasy football rot your brain: football can be an ugly sport.
Video: 's post game interview with Nathan Zegura
5) Donte Whitner played out of his mind on Sunday. Coach Pettine normally says Whitner grades out as one of the Browns' best defensive players each and every week. But against Tampa Bay, Whitner was on a whole other level. It wasn't just his 54-yard interceptions return. On a third-and-1 play in the third quarter, with the Bucs driving into Cleveland territory, Whitner timed a blitz to perfection, stoning running back Mike James in for a 2-yard-loss. The Browns coaching staff talked about Whitner being the enforcer back in training camp and he's clearly living up to that mantra.
6) It wasn't exactly a gold-star day to remember for the secondary, but the unit has slowly worked through some early season issues to become the strength of the defense. Joe Haden's tip-drill to Whitner was the type of athleticism and grace you seen at a gymnastics meet. For the third straight game, Tashaun Gipson picked off his sixth pass of the season and it's not even a lead story coming from the game – it's just become the expectation that the 24-year-old safety will make a play. Justin Gilbert had a couple of solid plays in single-coverage and can be trusted late in ball games. Buster Skrine did have his hands full with Mike Evans and will be tested again on Thursday against 6-foot-2 Bengals receiver Mohamed Sanu.
7) The one player who isn't getting much love for possibly his most important game as a Brown is Miles Austin. His numbers look average (three catches, 54 yards), but every single catch was of the utmost importance. Austin hauled in a 25- and 16-yarder both respectively on third-down and another 13-yard reception that kept the clock and chains moving late in the fourth quarter. Let's remind you that Austin was a late free agent pick-up in May, and his limited use in OTAs had some wondering whether if his hamstring was fully healthy. Austin's been reliable and most games the number one cornerback is draped all over him.
8) The running game is concerning. Even Pettine said this in his opening statement following the Tampa Bay win: "Obviously, the run game was still an issue." There's no sidestepping it – for three straight weeks Cleveland has not been able to run the football effectively. The offensive line is not owning the line of scrimmage like they have. Running backs are not breaking off the chunk yardage plays we had become used to. And all of these factors put more pressure on Brian Hoyer to make more plays. Cincinnati is arguably the stiffest front-seven the Browns have seen all season. Terrance West's cutback style worked to a degree against Tampa Bay (15 carries, 48 yards) and he's building some steam to earn even more playing time.
9) Quickly on Hoyer: he threw for a season-high 300 yards. There were so many throws like the Travis Benjamin vine pasted below. His first interception was unacceptable, and he'll tell you that. The second was truly an unlucky bounce that easily could've unraveled the Browns. Hoyer didn't let mistakes affect him against Tampa Bay. He was asked to carry the offense in the second half. He made it to the finish line.
10) Special teams really did save the day. Billy Winn's blocked kick was a six-point swing. Craig Robertson's punt deflection was another eventual seven points on the scoreboard that cemented the Browns' lead. Taylor Gabriel returning kicks was also a nice wrinkle thrown in by special teams coordinator Chris Tabor. Special teams can truly be an ally for a team in playoff contention.