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After loss of Deshaun Watson, Dorian Thompson-Robinson knows what’s at stake as goals remain lofty

The week was going to be all about the magnitude of the matchup.

The Browns and Steelers are 6-3, and the winner Sunday afternoon at Cleveland Browns Stadium will move into second place by themselves in the AFC North, a half-game back of the Ravens. The Browns seek their first title in the 22-year history of the division and have the chance to beat the Ravens and Steelers in consecutive weeks for the first time — in 15 opportunities.

Those stakes still apply, but they were overshadowed by the stunning news of quarterback Deshaun Watson being lost for the season with a broken bone in the right shoulder. Whether his absence is too much to overcome remains to be seen.

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The Browns have eight games left and are in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot. Rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson will be behind the wheel, but the Browns insist their goals remain the same, as difficult as they may be to attain without their franchise quarterback.

“Realistic as hell,” tight end David Njoku said Friday. “As tough as that is, especially a guy that’s close to me. We also lost Nick Chubb earlier this year. That was tough for me. But ain’t sh– change. We’re here every day, day in and day out, working our a—- off and we expect to do what we do.”

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While the playoffs and beyond are the ultimate goals, coach Kevin Stefanski and the players aren’t looking down the road and are staying true to their week-at-a-time mantra. With that in mind, they can focus on the most hated of rivals, getting revenge for the Week 2 loss in Pittsburgh and the chance to make it three straight wins.

The thrilling 33-31 come-from-behind victory last Sunday in Baltimore had fans dreaming of a division title and Super Bowl run, especially with Watson going 14-for-14 in the second half. The Watson news may have dampened the collective enthusiasm, but Stefanski called on the fans to show up Sunday.

“We’re excited to have that atmosphere,” he said. “The energy that they bring has been unbelievable and they got to do it again. It’s an all-hands-on-deck week and that includes the fans.

“So somebody set the air horn off in the Muni Lot at about 12:35 and get everybody’s butt in that stadium because we’re going to need them early. We want to start fast.”

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Thompson-Robinson, a fifth-round pick, can use the support. He’s stepping into large and expensive shows as he looks for redemption after flopping in his lone start. He threw three interceptions Oct. 1 in a 28-3 loss to the Ravens and was benched afterward for journeyman P.J. Walker.

Thompson-Robinson and the Browns expect much better results after he took the first-team repetitions in practice and knew all week he would start.

“He’s always been the same guy,” defensive end Myles Garrett said. “He’s always been focused. He’s been about his work and now it’s just like, ‘I’ve been there and the worst that could happen has happened, so I can climb up from there.’”

Thompson-Robinson spent the week throwing to Njoku and receivers Amari Cooper, Elijah Moore and high school teammate Cedric Tillman. His targets believe the time on task will pay dividends.

“I feel like everyone has more confidence in him and in the plan,” said Moore, who caught his first touchdown with the Browns in Baltimore. “We got to trust in him. And I know I do. I know the guys do.”

Thompson-Robinson started 48 games at UCLA, starring as a passer and runner. He impressed the front office, coaches and teammates with his preseason performance, showing general manager Andrew Berry enough to trade veteran backup Joshua Dobbs before the season. Thompson-Robinson knows he has a lot to prove after his previous start and is confident he’ll rebound, despite facing a Steelers team 24-5 against rookie quarterbacks under coach Mike Tomlin.

“Because I’ve been in these shoes before where I’ve been thrown out there in the fire and made it out of it successful,” Thompson-Robinson said. “So I know I can do this. I know what it takes to do this. I’ve been through the fire already this year and I’ve only grown from it.”

His first priority is protecting the ball against a defense tied for first in the league with 18 takeaways.

“Just making really great decisions,” he said. “I don’t even have to worry about the outcome of the game. If I can just go in there and make a great decision on each and every play, it’ll work itself out and I won’t really have to worry about much and we’ll be all smiling at the end of the day.”

Thompson-Robinson turned 24 on Tuesday — the day he got the news he’d start — but is wise enough to grasp the gravity of the moment.

“If you look at the circumstances, what we got to go up against and all the things that come with this game, you have to win,” he said. “It’s a must-win game. Not only just for this week but our future and what we’re trying to get to and the goals we’re trying to get to.”

The Steelers have been outgained in every game and outscored 182-156 yet are 6-3 and have won nine straight one-score games. Veteran defensive tackle Cameron Heyward vociferously objected to the notion the Steelers are winning with “smoke and mirrors.”

“Screw you,” he told reporters in Pittsburgh. “We worked too hard for this. These guys dedicate their lives.

“Smoke and mirrors, I think that’s a cloud of smoke.”

The Browns have overcome plenty of adversity already this season, starting with season-ending injuries to Jack Conlin and Chubb and including the nearly four full games missed by Watson last month. Rising above the loss of Watson for the rest of the season just when he was starting to play well will require more resilience and resolve than ever.

“Honestly, I feel like it’s just another test for this team,” cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. said. “We’ve been battle-tested a lot this year and I feel like that’s what’s defining us and bringing us together. So just another obstacle.”

The Browns are proud of how close they’ve grown and credited the chemistry for rallying against the Ravens despite trailing by two touchdowns much of the day. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said he could feel the tenacity in his soul.

“We felt the whole team on the sideline,” linebackers coach Jason Tarver said. “This team is full of resolve and we could feel it. We were talking about it, players, coaches, everybody, of how this is where we want to be.

“We know we work well together. We like each other. We have trained for these moments. We’ve become more resilient, like Coach Stefanski always says.”

Continued dominance from the No. 1-ranked defense would also help to continue the winning ways.

“We got to resist the urge to try to do too much and to play outside of what we do, because what we do is enough and just make the plays that come to us,” Schwartz said. “Do it with some physicality, do it with some great effort and some great spirit, and all those things will take care of itself. And that’s the best way that we can honor Deshaun, and that’s the best way that we can help out DTR.”

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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