Browns control destiny

BEREA, Ohio – The NFL validated the Cleveland Browns’ playoff chances yesterday by sending out a release that spelled out a scenario by which the club can clinch a postseason berth next Sunday.

Apparently, Romeo Crennel hasn’t seen the league’s official memo.

“Playoffs?” the Browns coach said, playfully mimicking Jim Mora’s infamous rant without the high-pitched whine or razor-edged sarcasm. “Playoffs? I don’t know anything about playoffs.”

Might be time to start brushing up, coach.

With three games left, the never-do-it-the-easy way Browns (8-5), who had to survive three onside kicks in the final three minutes before holding off the New York Jets 24-18 on Sunday, control their playoff destiny.

Hang on. Playoff destiny? The Browns? C’mon.

No kidding. As the snow starts falling, it’s beginning to look a lot like the playoffs in Cleveland.

And Crennel, who began this season with his job in serious jeopardy, is having a hard time grasping the concept.

“We play the Buffalo Bills on Sunday and we have to improve in order to be ready for Buffalo,” Crennel said, again stiff-arming the playoff talk. “That’s our focus. That’s been the focus all year, to try and get ready for the next game.

“We’re not the New England Patriots. We know that we can improve and we have been working every week trying to improve. Sometimes, that improvement is more evident than other times. If we keep working, then we give ourselves the best chance. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Crennel’s coolness on the subject aside, there’s a very real possibility the Browns could be ticketed for the postseason by this time next week. Cleveland, which currently holds a one-game lead for the AFC’s second wild-card berth, can lock up a playoff spot with a win over the Bills (7-6) combined with a loss by Tennessee (7-6) at Kansas City and a loss or tie by Denver (6-7), which visits Houston on Thursday.

With their final two games against disappointing Cincinnati (5-8) and disastrous San Francisco (3-10), it’s conceivable the Browns could run the table, finish 11-5, and not need to rely on others to get them in.

That’s presumptuous, and if this whacked-out season has taught us anything, it’s that nothing can be assumed.

Still, the Browns are showing signs of being playoff-worthy.

Coming off a self-inflicted loss at Arizona one week earlier, they showed patience in building a 17-6 lead over the Jets and then withstanding a frantic comeback for their third road win.

While their opponent may have been weak, and the Browns couldn’t relax until Joe Jurevicius recovered a slippery kick with 27 seconds left, the stomach-churning final minutes had the makeup of a big game.

“We’re in the playoffs right now,” running back Jamal Lewis said, referring to the raised intensity and meaning of late-season games. “Three games left … we’re trying to win all of ’em.”

For that to happen, Cleveland will need much more from its defense, which has allowed a league-high 356 points and began to crack in the cold, closing minutes at the rain-soaked Meadowlands.

The Jets picked up 175 offensive yards in the fourth quarter.

Crennel and his coaching staff have been frustrated by the unit’s inconsistency all season.

“There have been stretches where we played really good defense, have made game winning stops and are able to get off the field efficiently,” he said. “Then there have been other times that they throw the ball over our head or the runner can run for 30 yards.

“We work at it. We talk about it. We’ve looked at it and we’ve adjusted some techniques and things like that. But we haven’t gotten to where we need to be yet.”

The biggest challenge for Crennel has been identifying the problem because there’s more than one.

“Sometimes it’s gap control, sometimes it’s run fits, sometimes it’s pursuit angles – you just keep harping on those things,” he said.

Crennel’s one-game-at-a-time mantra has worked to this point. Cleveland’s players have bought into the philosophy, but that didn’t stop a few of them from sneaking a peek at the scoreboard for updates of Tennessee’s overtime loss to San Diego on Sunday.

With the schedule down to its final weeks, it will be much tougher for the Browns to ignore the big prize lying ahead. The playoffs, a place they’ve visited once since 1999, are within their reach.

“There are a lot of things we can and need to do better,” Crennel said. “We’re still a work in progress. If we keep working at it that’ll give us a chance.”

Notes: Crennel said LB Antwan Peek’s high ankle sprain was the most serious injury from Sunday’s game. … Browns players were given the day off. … Crennel praised rookie DB Brandon McDonald, who had a big interception in the fourth quarter. … Offensive game balls were awarded to Lewis, who had 118 yards, and OG Ryan Tucker. On defense, LBs Kamerion Wimbley and (LB) Leon Williams got them and DB Mike Adams and Jurevicius were honored on special teams.