The Browns will step up in class this week as they face the 8-3 Titans in Tennessee.
Emerging receiver KhaDarel Hodge isn’t sweating it.
“I don’t look at the Titans as like a super team or nothing,” he said Monday. “They can get beat like anybody else. So we go into this game expecting to win and we’re expecting to do our thing, so I see this team as going deep into the playoffs, as far as we can go.
“No one can stop us but us. That’s how we look at it, and that’s how we’re going to keep looking at it. As long as we play our game, we can beat anybody.”
The Browns are 8-3 and hold the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs, the top wild card spot behind the division leaders. The Titans hold the No. 3 seed as they sit atop the AFC South.
The strength of the Browns’ record has been called into question.
They have a minus-21 point differential (286-265), their only win over a team with a winning record was 32-23 over the Colts (7-4) on Oct. 11 and their losses came against the Ravens (6-4), Steelers (10-0) and Raiders (6-5).
The Browns have won three straight since the bye, but they’ve come against the Texans (4-7), Eagles (3-6-1 heading into Monday night) and the Jaguars (1-10) on Sunday.
Hodge played in a Super Bowl with the Rams after the 2018 season and believes the Browns are special.
“First of all, we have great coaches, some of the best coaches I’ve been around,” he said. “They know how to adapt in any situation, whether it’s personnel or game plan. They always adapt and make things right.
“And, of course, we have great players throughout the roster. We’re deep at every position and we’re coachable. At the same time, we’ll do what it takes for the team to win and we have a lot of unselfish guys and guys that just want to win and know their role and want to do their part.”
The 27-25 win in Jacksonville featured sloppy play from the Browns and was tighter than many expected. The players said repeatedly after the game their best football is yet to come, and first-year coach Kevin Stefanski agrees.
“Yeah, I do feel that way,” he said. “I do not think I have coached my best. I think as a staff we can do a better job. I know I can do a better job.
“That is the ideal here to be ascending in the second half of this season. I mentioned December football. That is when you really do want to start playing your best football. We have to put a game together and a series of games together where our offense, our defense and our special teams all play at a high level.”
The Browns-Titans matchup is loaded with playoff implications and storylines. Defensive end Myles Garrett is expected to return after missing two games with COVID-19. Cleveland’s Nick Chubb and Tennessee’s Derrick Henry are two of the league’s best running backs, and Henry passed Chubb for the NFL rushing title in the finale last year. Right tackle Jack Conklin played four years with the Titans before signing with the Browns in March.
Add Hodge’s statement to the list.
COMING ON STRONG
Hodge has nine catches for 155 yards in seven games. Six for 104 have come in the last two games as he’s become a bigger piece of the passing game.
“I really enjoy it, actually,” he said. “It is always good to contribute to the offense as much as I can. Being able to come up big in certain situations means a lot to me.
“I spent most of the offseason saying that I wanted to be a bigger part of this offense and that is what I was going to do. For it to be happening right now is a blessing.”
He’s taken to celebrating first downs by strumming an air guitar.
“It was just something I just came up with playing around with my brothers at the crib,” Hodge said. “They were asking me what I was going to do if I got a catch and a first down, and that was the first thing I thought of and I just stuck with it.”
Stefanski didn’t have an update on safety Ronnie Harrison, who injured his shoulder on the first play Sunday in his return to Jacksonville. Stefanski said Harrison was still undergoing tests.
The Browns added a safety later in the day when they were awarded Tedric Thompson (6-foot, 204 pounds) off waivers from the Chiefs. He was undrafted in 2017 and has started 16 of 37 games with the Seahawks and Chiefs. He signed with the Chiefs this year and played eight games off the bench.
He has 82 career tackles, five passes defensed, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
The Browns have a roster exemption for Thompson until he’s permitted to join the team after passing the COVID-19 testing protocols.
** Cornerback Denzel Ward (calf) is “unlikely” to play against the Titans. He was injured Nov. 22 against the Eagles and didn’t play against the Jaguars.
** Stefanski said safety Sheldrick Redwine (knee) remains day-to-day. He didn’t play Sunday.
Fullback Andy Janovich was activated from the COVID-19 reserve list. He tested positive Nov. 16 and missed two games.
The Browns elevated fullback Johnny Stanton from the practice squad for the Eagles game but not the Jaguars game. Rookie tight end Harrison Bryant was occasionally used as a lead blocker from the backfield, as the Browns chose to keep five receivers active instead of elevating Stanton.
Stefanski said he loves Janovich and is excited to have him back but wouldn’t say he was the reason the Browns didn’t convert a fourth-and-inches in the fourth quarter on a Kareem Hunt run up the middle.
“I think that Andy is a huge part of our short-yardage and goal line,” right guard Wyatt Teller said. “Obviously he is our fullback and an absolute stud in the backfield. He is a big part of that.”
ON SECOND THOUGHT
The failed fourth down came with 5:42 left and the Browns ahead 27-19. It came after a failed third-and-inches when Baker Mayfield threw behind Hunt open in the flat, and instead of a 40-yard field goal attempt to put the Browns up by two scores.
“Knowing the result, obviously, wish we had kicked the field goal, but felt good about the play calls,” Stefanski said. “I just think it is an area that I will continue to look at what we can do better. With all of those decisions, you try to have as much of the conversations during the week and how you want to play the game, and then as the game is ongoing, you are continuing to talk about your matchups and the plays that you have up and if you like them versus certain looks.
“You are relying on your guys. Now, that makes it sound like I am putting the blame on the players. I promise you, I am looking at how I can put them in a better position to succeed in those moments.”
The NFL instructed teams to stay out of their facilities Monday and Tuesday to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 following the Thanksgiving holiday, when many players and staff had guests. So for the first time, Stefanski and his staff will put together the game plans entirely virtually.
“The message I gave our players today is every team in the league is in the same boat as us these next two days, how can we do this better than anybody else?” he said.
** The Week 16 game against the Jets is set for Dec. 27 at 1 p.m. in New Jersey. It had been an option to be played Saturday, Dec. 26.
** Bryant lost his second fumble of the season Sunday. Stefanski said it’s a technique issue and he’s confident Bryant will work hard to solve it.