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NFL Preview - Jacksonville (2-9) at Cleveland (4-7)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Well, what do you know? Shame is a great motivator, after all.
Just a few weeks ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars were halfway to a winless 16- game season and began hearing the inane suggestions that they'd no doubt struggle with high-end college teams from Tuscaloosa, Tallahassee and Columbus.
These days, now that 0-16 is no longer an issue, they're taking on the mental approach of a team for whom losing is not the first worry. It's a strategy they'll try to maintain this Sunday with a Week 13 visit to Cleveland.
"Our objective is to really sustain this and play at a high level all the time regardless of who we play," Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said. "That's what we're really striving our team to get to, where they play their best all the time. If we do that, the wins will take care of themselves."
The best offense toward a franchise resurgence has been an improved defense.
The Jaguars had been near laughable when trying to stop the run through their first eight games, allowing more than 160 yards per week. During the two-wins- in-three-games stretch, however, they've trimmed that number to 58 per week.
And the total defense number, while still languishing at the bottom of the NFL as a whole, was a completely respectable 218 in the Week 12 defeat of Houston.
"We really locked into a couple (defenses), but I think our guys are starting to understand it better," Bradley said. "They're getting a comfort level now of how to play their responsibility yet keep themselves alive for the whole play. That's what you're seeing on tape. You're seeing guys do that now, and because of it, they're playing with more confidence."
And with good defense has come improved offense.
Veteran workhorse Maurice Jones-Drew galloped for a season-best 144 yards against the Texans and reached the end zone for the third straight week. A new challenge to that suddenly prodigious run game arrives in Cleveland, where the Browns are sixth in the league stopping ground gainers (97.7 yards per game).
It's on offense that this week's hosts have some worries of their own.
Cleveland, which has dropped two straight in the AFC North by a combined 37 points, is back to a familiar position - last in the division, where it has finished eight times in the last 10 years.
The two losses came complete with eight total turnovers, and the scoring unit's prospects are suspect this week thanks to the return of starting quarterback Brandon Weeden, who's already been jilted twice this year for other passers who've subsequently been injured.
Weeden threw an interception and lost a fumble in half a game last week at Pittsburgh after starter Jason Campbell was lost with a concussion. Earlier in the season, Weeden saw Brian Hoyer become the darling of Browns fans before he was lost with a knee injury.
Overall against the Steelers, Weeden completed 13 of 30 passes for 209 yards.
He's not started a game since Oct. 20 against Green Bay and hasn't won as a starter since Dec. 9 of last season.
"I know that he has the backing of his teammates," Cleveland coach Rob Chudzinski said. "The type of guys that we have in the locker room, their support for him, they want to win and everybody realizes that Brandon needs to play well, as everybody does."
A primary target for Weeden is wide receiver Josh Gordon, who caught 14 passes for 237 yards in the loss to the Steelers. He's within striking distance of the Browns franchise record of 1,289 established by Braylon Edwards in 2007.
The Jaguars thrived against another high-end receiver last week, holding Andre Johnson to just two catches.
"(The record) really doesn't mean that much to me," Gordon said. "After taking a loss like that, it means nothing. If we can't go out there and win, I really don't care about it."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Jones-Drew has begun lately to resemble the running weapon he's been for the Jaguars for several years. Among those Browns with a responsibility to deal with him is safety T.J. Ward, whose big hits can lead to big plays for the Browns, while his big misses can go the other way.
While it's true the Jaguars held Houston's Johnson in check last week, it's also true that over the long haul they've not been effective in defending the pass. If Gordon wants to firmly place himself among the league's best targets, he's got the chance to post numbers here.
The Jaguars, two wins or not, are simply not very good. So the question becomes, are the Browns - with the completely doubtable Weeden at the controls - even worse?
The home field here says a tentative no, though it would hardly be shocking if it goes otherwise.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Browns 21, Jaguars 17
11/29 09:12:31 ET
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