Browns can sweep Bengals for first time since 2002
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Although the Cleveland Browns' playoff chances are slim, the chance that they exist at all is pretty amazing heading into Sunday's home game against the AFC North rival Cincinnati Bengals.
The Browns (6-7-1) went 0-16 last season and were 2-5-1 this year before winning four of their last five games under interim head coach Gregg Williams.
Cleveland won at Cincinnati, 35-20, on Nov. 25. What made beating their rivals even sweeter for some of the Browns was that former Browns head coach Hue Jackson, fired on Oct. 29, was on the other sideline as a defensive assistant.
Williams, who was put in charge when Jackson was cut loose, claims that incentive shouldn't be necessary.
"If I have to worry about (motivation), we have the wrong people," said Williams, who is 4-2 since Jackson left town. "People don't understand that when you ask about motivation and you ask about intensity, we're inside of the white lines; let's roll.
"If that becomes a factor, the most important thing that I have to do is recommend to the people upstairs is that guy doesn't belong."
It should be enough that the Browns can sweep the Bengals for the first time since 2002, and if they win their last two games will have their best record since they finished 10-6 in 2007.
That was the last time Cleveland had a winning record.
"That's actually my goal," safety Jabrill Peppers said. "The playoffs are something we can't control. Having a winning record, that's something we can control. That's my main focus. Let's win out. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't. It gives us a stepping stone for next year."
Jackson made a point to shake the hand of Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield after the game, but Mayfield didn't stick around to chat, and the next day on Instagram, he called Jackson "a fake."
Not all the Browns feel that way about their former head coach, who had a miserable 3-36-1 as Cleveland's head coach.
"(Jackson) just wanted to be a part of the game and when the opportunity arose (coaching with the Bengals), he couldn't turn it down," Peppers said. "So I have no ill-will towards him. I'm thankful for everything he taught me. Thankful that he brought me here, but still looking forward to kicking his ass again."
The Bengals (6-8) have nothing to play for but pride.
Cincinnati started the season by winning four of its first five games, but their season imploded with injuries that put quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert out for the year.
After losing five consecutive games, backup quarterback Jeff Driskel claimed his first victory in his third NFL start last week when the Bengals beat the Oakland Raiders, 30-16, in their home finale.
Cincinnati was eliminated from playoff contention anyway.
Even tough the Bengals won, there was more bad news, as wide receiver Tyler Boyd had to leave the game because of a MCL sprain in his right knee.
That came after Boyd, who was stepped up in Green's absence, increased his 2018 numbers to 76 receptions for 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns.
Running back Joe Mixon, who has taken over as the focal point of the Bengals' offense because of all the injuries, rushed for more than 100 yards for the second straight game last week.
Mixon leads the AFC with 995 yards rushing this season and is fourth overall in the league behind Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys, Todd Gurley II of the Los Angeles Rams and Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants.
"We said two or three weeks ago, 'We've got to continue riding on Joe's shoulders,'" head coach Marvin Lewis said.
While he is 354 yards behind Elliott and won't win the NFL rushing title, Mixon leads Phillip Lindsay of the Denver Broncos by four yards and is well ahead of Houston's Lamar Miller (917), Pittsburgh's James Conner (909) and Tennessee's Derrick Henry (882).
The only Bengals to win the conference rushing title were Paul Robinson with 1,023 yards in 1968 and Corey Dillon with 1,315 in 2001.
After their strong start this season, that's the only title the Bengals have left to play for.
Updated December 21, 2018