CLEVELAND - As the ever-changing, never-predictable NFL world turns, the Cleveland Browns are enjoying the ride. They're still in fourth place, but they're officially the hottest team in the AFC North.
Smile and laugh at that. The Browns themselves are.
A season lost three weeks ago is now at the very least interesting, and maybe more than that. The Browns have won three straight, dominated the Chiefs the way they should have Sunday, 30-7, and for the first time in a long time not only have momentum, but are playing and carrying themselves like they've been doing this winning thing for a long time.
Their postseason chances are still alive only mathematically, and the organizational future is still uncertain. In the postgame locker room Sunday, though, it was clear that 5-8 never felt better.
"It's huge," quarterback Brandon Weeden said. "I was informed it's been a while."
Three marks the Browns' longest win streak since they won the last four of 2009 to finish 5-11. Their last three-game win streak spanned October and early November 2007, when they went 10-6 but barely missed the playoffs.
These three straight wins have been against a team playing its third-string quarterback and two teams playing out the string, but a three-game win streak is a three-game win streak. In the NFL a 23-point victory never happens by accident, no matter how much the Chiefs did to help.
The Browns did what they had to do to win Sunday's game. Besides sleepwalking through the first few minutes and squandering a couple opportunities to make their halftime lead bigger than the 10-7 it was, they dominated. The helpless Chiefs did the things bad teams do, and the Browns took advantage.
Sunday's game would count as memorable mostly for the relieved postgame smiles, and for the total change from what went on during a 2-8 start. A three-game win streak, especially considering where these players have been -- and where this team was three weeks ago? Those are the kind of mathematics the Browns have been waiting to see stacked in their favor.
"I can get used to this," said Phil Dawson, who went over 300 successful career field goals on Sunday. "I caught some heat a couple months ago saying I fely like we were right on the verge. My timing might have been a little off, but I
think were starting to see what Ive been feeling for awhile."
For the first time since 2007, the Browns have two receivers playing at a very high level. Emerging rookie receiver Josh Gordon ran open most of the day, and he caught eight passes for 86 yards. Fellow receiver Greg Little played like a man possessed. The play-calling Sunday was varied and even a little imaginative, and even against a team that tried to drag them down to its level, the Browns resembled a business-like, assertive NFL team.
They're getting there.
"I think once you see something happen over and over, then of course its easier for me to stand there in front of the team and say, 'You know what guys, we can do this,'" Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. "Its an easier sell. Even though I believe it when its not happening, or youre getting to the point where you need to have it happen consistently, once they feel it then they get it right in their minds then they have a better chance to do it."
Shurmur knows he's been all but been written off by many Browns fans amidst an ownership change and all those early season losses, but he's making at least a bit of a statement with the way the Browns have played lately. He finally beat the Steelers two weeks ago, won in Oakland last week and added his first runaway win Sunday.
"I'm just happy," Shurmur said. "It's good to win in a different way sometimes."
They all count, and for the first time in five years the Browns have made December at least a little about momentum and games of significance, and suddenly this streak has made a really interesting home game with the Washington Redskins next week. It wasn't even the midpoint of the third quarter Sunday when it started raining and fans headed for the exits, confident the result was settled and they wouldn't miss much. The Chiefs played like they wished they could leave with them.
The Browns closed the door, and did so emphatically.
They're running with this streak, and young players -- from Trent Richardson to Travis Benjamin to Gordon and a few others --are leading the way. We still don't know where this goes from here, or what it means for the future of so many, but what's happening now hasn't happened in a long, long while.
"(When) we beat the Steelers, we started to see it" Joshua Cribbs said, "For the first time in a while, we come out and expect to win."