Longtime Browns play-by-play announcer Jim Donovan said it perfectly in the locker room after the Cleveland Browns 26-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons – there is something special brewing with this team.
Amidst several ravaging injuries and amidst three Brian Hoyer interceptions, the Browns were still able to prevail on the road in a hostile environment at the Georgia Dome.
Why? How? What makes this Browns team different than the years of perpetual losing?
The one word that's sticking out above it all: mental toughness.
"Winning can be a habit just like losing can," coach Mike Pettine said during a Victory Monday teleconference.
Mental toughness is an all-encompassing word, but it's truly the key to why Cleveland finds itself right in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt.
This 2014 version of the Browns think of themselves as winners. Winning is literally a mentality; a mindset. It's a belief system that good things are bound to transpire during a game; not bad. Players will rise up when their number is called.
And in today's NFL, a winning mentality has to start with the quarterback. His confidence harnesses itself throughout the team. Cleveland isn't asking their quarterback to be Tom Brady or Peyton Manning; they're asking him to be Brian Hoyer.
"I don't think there's ever a time during a game when we think we're out of it because we have 'Six' (Hoyer) running the show," said Andrew Hawkins on Monday. "It's not just him. The guys around him are all busting their butts, but there's no question about it - he's the leader on offense."
"Brian knows that, not just me, the entire team has so much confidence in him," continued Hawkins. "If that waivered when someone made mistakes, I think that's an indication of not a very good football team or a close football team, and I think we are a close football team."
Whether Hawkins knew it or not, his commentary on Monday is exactly why the Browns are standing tall with a 7-4 record. This is a football team who legitimately cares about each other. This is a football team who believes they will win every Sunday, no matter who the opponent. Last-second wins over the Titans and Falcons and dominant victories over divisional rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati helped bring that bond even closer.
Mike Pettine created that very atmosphere and leaders like Hoyer, Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner tattooed the belief system for each other in the locker room. There are individual characters like Craig Robertson!(/team/roster/craig-robertson/05d81f7d-4ddf-4f87-9d70-5353cd037ce1/ "Craig Robertson") who help the team bond; like Paul Kruger, who has twice overcome death; like Terrance West who rode a 3:30 a.m. bus to make sure he wasn't late for football practice in college.
Need more proof these guys care? Check out how many players posted a picture of Gipson on Instagram, wishing him well in his recovery after a knee injury.
While the Browns have skill players everywhere, their wins aren't coming from dominant individual performances. This is a melting pot of people who believe in the same mission. This is pure team football.
We've established that the Browns have the right mix of guys. Now it's Pettine and the coaching staff's job to make sure they are prepared.
"You try to simulate as best you can performing under pressure, and that goes all the way back to the spring and some of the things we did in training camp," said Pettine. "The fact that we've had success, I just think further bolsters our guys confidence when we get in a situation where we are down some. We always feel confident we can come back.
"The two large comebacks that we've had - the one in the opener where we fell short and the one against Tennessee - I think our guys truly now believe that there's no deficit too big."
The Browns are winning games because young players like Joel Bitonio are prepared enough to know to chase down Devin Hester on an open field return.
The Browns are winning games by instilling confidence in players like Travis Benjamin, who committed a critical fumble one game, and then hauled in two fourth quarter touchdowns to seal the biggest road comeback in NFL history the next. Cleveland prepared Benjamin in practice that no moment can be too big.
The Browns are winning games with undrafted rookies Isaiah Crowell, Taylor Gabriel and K'Waun Williams taking on prominent roles.
"Guys care about each other, and they realize that they're part of something bigger than themselves," said Pettine. "I think that when you're involved in a team sport, and you have that, you have a chance to be special."
Question the interceptions from Hoyer in Atlanta. Question some of the time management from Pettine. Question how this team will survive another devastating injury.
But don't question this team's mental toughness and the care they have for each other – the two traits that are strong enough to lift the Browns to January.