BEREA, Ohio —
They've been on the bottom for so long it seems as if the Browns are stuck there.
With an abysmal 15-48 record inside the AFC North since it was formed in 2002, Cleveland has been the rugged division's longtime punching bag and cellar dwellers. They've been down and stayed down.
That could soon change.
One of the NFL's youngest teams, the Browns believe they are closing the gap on Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh - all playoff teams in 2011.
"Everybody in the division is beatable,'' cornerback Joe Haden said. "I just feel our team is starting to become one of the good teams. We're on the verge of being at the top.''
It's going to be a long, slow climb, but the Browns (2-6) are showing signs that they're finally headed in the right direction. They've won two straight home games, and following a victory over San Diego, the Browns are feeling pretty good about themselves heading into Sunday's rematch with Baltimore.
The Ravens (5-2) have beaten the Browns nine straight times. Baltimore defeated Cleveland 23-16 on Sept. 27, but the Browns were in the game until the final seconds despite a costly interception, several dropped passes and losing kick return specialist/wide receiver Josh Cribbs, who was heavily involved in the game plan, to a concussion in the first quarter.
Like Haden, Cribbs sees the Browns, who are just 4-23 in the division since 2008 and have never been better than 3-3, catching up to the Ravens, Bengals and Steelers. However, Cribbs said the only way for Cleveland to accelerate the process and truly show its improved is to start beating up the bullies on a regular basis.
"I feel like you have to,'' Cribbs said. "What other way can you? You can say we always play them well and fought hard, but the real test is taking advantage of our opportunities by winning, not by coming close.
"A win is a win.''
For several years, there was a huge disparity in talent between Cleveland and the rest of the division. That's no longer the case as Browns general manager Tom Heckert has drafted well, infusing the roster the past three years with up-and-coming players like Haden, defensive tackle Phil Taylor and a trio of rising rookies: running back Trent Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Josh Gordon, who was plucked in the second round of the supplemental draft.
The Browns look better, and they're playing better, too. Cleveland is no longer a pushover, not that the Ravens ever considered the Browns as such. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has won all nine games he's played against the Browns, a lopsided statistic he says may be a bit deceiving.
"It's kind of crazy that we haven't lost, because there have been a lot of close ones,'' Flacco said. "Even all the way back to my rookie year, they were beating us up there and we came back. There have been a lot of games that have come down to the wire, including the last one we played against them.''
Before they beat the Bengals on Oct. 14, the Browns had lost 12 straight division games. By contrast, the Ravens have won 10 in a row inside the AFC North, the league's longest current streak.
For the Browns to be taken seriously as an improved team, they need to start stringing together wins over their division rivals. And now that the weather has gotten colder, Cribbs said there's nothing like a division foe to get the blood boiling.
"It's great football in the AFC North, especially at this time of year,'' he said. "This is what football is all about, playing football at this time of year when the weather is bad, the field is bad. It really shows what you're made of. If you succumb to the elements it really shows. It showed last week playing against a team from California, they're not used to these elements and we have to take advantage of it. Now we're playing for a team that comes from the same elements.
"It's going to be a nitty-gritty football game.''
Ravens coach John Harbaugh expects nothing less. Although he's also 9-0 against Cleveland, Harbaugh doesn't see the Browns as the division weakling.
"We've always had the greatest respect for all the teams in this division,'' he said. "Cleveland plays us to the wire every single year. It's always a tough, physical game. We consider it a rivalry. We always have. Same thing with Cincinnati. It's just a really tough division, and it always has been. From the outside looking in, that's how we've seen it and that's kind of how it's played out every time we've played everybody in this division.''
The Browns feel as if they let a win slip away when they played the Ravens in Week 4. Cleveland was driving for a possible go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter, when Weeden's pass toward the sideline was intercepted by cornerback Cary Williams and returned 63 yards for a TD.
Weeden couldn't make up for it that night, but this week he'll finally gets a chance to atone for the mistake. But Weeden understands there's a bigger picture to consider when Baltimore's in town.
"More than anything it's a divisional game,'' he said. "We're 2-6 and we're trying to win a divisional game. They hit us in the mouth and they played well. We've grown up a lot since then and they've gotten better, so you know it's a big game for both teams. They're coming off a bye week, we're coming off a win and want to keep going off that.
"It's a divisional game and both teams are ready to rock and roll.''