The Cleveland Browns are nothing if not consistent.

The Browns may be starting their third quarterback Sunday when they play the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore.

If Connor Shaw starts, it will be the third year in a row and fourth time in the last five seasons the Browns will have started their third quarterback in the season finale.

The others: Jason Campbell last season (after Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer), Thad Lewis in 2012 (after Weeden and Colt McCoy) and McCoy in 2010 (after Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace).

Johnny Manziel has a significant hamstring injury that will not allow him to play and Hoyer has a significant shoulder injury that, though not structural, could keep him from playing.

That would leave Shaw, promoted from the practice squad this week.

Nothing has been determined, and Hoyer will try to play. But he probably would have left the game in Carolina on Sunday after he was drilled into the ground by 315-pound defensive lineman Kawann Short if the Browns had a third quarterback active.

Short landed on Hoyer, and he was feeling the effects after the game.

So the Browns quarterback situation looks like this:
  • Manziel out with what sounds like a severe hamstring pull or perhaps even tear (the Browns never specify on injuries). Manziel has erased none of the criticisms of him heading into the draft. Among them: Too short. Can’t read defenses. Looks to run. Runs the risk of injury because he runs. In the end, Manziel did not read defenses well, looked to run too often and was injured -- though he said his injury was caused when he slipped on a third-down throw to Josh Gordon. The sample size to judge Manziel is miniscule, but in the sample size he was given, he provided few answers.
  • Hoyer dealing with facing a Ravens defense with a bum shoulder. He will try to play -- it’s his nature -- and the Browns are treating Hoyer as day-to-day. If he improves enough as the week goes on, Hoyer will play. But given his impending free agency, he has to measure the risk/reward. The Browns' plan for their quarterbacks following the season remains an unknown.
  • Shaw, highly thought of by South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, has done the grunt work with the scout team much of the season as a practice squad quarterback. Browns coach Mike Pettine said all the right things about Shaw’s work ethic and preparation, but asking him to play in a game where the Ravens have the playoffs on the line is a tough task. Then again, Houston signed Case Keenum last week and he led the Texans to a win over the Ravens.

So ... there’s that.

CLEVELAND -- So he's "more hungry"?

So he wants to be "the guy"?

Yeah, these next eight months are crucial.

Johnny Manziel threw up one money sign to celebrate a touchdown in 15 offensive drives then closed the register with a news conference in Carolina that seemed to acknowledge the obvious: There wasn't enough done on the field to take immediate ownership of the Cleveland Browns' quarterback job, but that process should start now.

Listen to coach Mike Pettine carefully when he describes in general terms what he wants in a quarterback to fit his "play like a Brown" mold. There's not a lot of talk about throwing mechanics or third-down conversions.
  • "It's the leadership part, not just vocally but leading by example."
  • "An encyclopedic knowledge of what we're doing ... in lockstep with the offensive coordinator."
  • "Every time he steps on to the field, he has to elevate the play of the players around him."
  • "Find a way to make plays. ... We want to find the winningest quarterback."
[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonShould Johnny Manziel compete for the Browns' starting quarterback job again next year, there are a few lessons he could learn in the offseason.
There's your blueprint, Manziel. Who knows, maybe there's a "no swan-floating" somewhere in there. Must be in another transcript.

Manziel and others around him (offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, for one) have said Manziel is misunderstood, that the party-with-Bieber-and-Drake image is a far-fetched one. This offseason can punctuate that point if that's how Manziel really feels. He can remold his image. He was able to start that process during the season, it seems. Coaches said he worked hard. Manziel said he learned to be a pro.

This offseason, Manziel can check off the first two items on Pettine's wish list -- and the quotes appear in the order he said them, by the way. Let the struggles of your two NFL starts drive you, an offseason fueled by the "absolutely" humbling experience you mentioned last week.

Spend some time in Cleveland outside the mandatory hours. Organize throwing sessions with receivers. Lean on veterans and coaches for advice.

That last part is crucial, Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby said. He's seen a lot of high draft picks fizzle out because they didn't evolve with the game.

"Johnny's got a lot of growing to do. He's a rookie. What do you want me to say?" Dansby said. "Johnny's making strides. He's getting better every week."

Dansby was speaking about rookies in general, but the point is clear: Now is the time to start winning the job.

Browns draft another quarterback? Who cares, start winning the job.

Browns sign a veteran free agent? Who cares, start winning the job.

The more competitors, the better.

It was fair to question whether Manziel was ready this season, but it seems reactionary to label him anything -- bust, hero, journeyman -- based on 35 throws. That's an absurdly small sample size for a rookie quarterback.

But Manziel could have created offseason momentum with a few more plays made on the field. Maybe he would have done that in Baltimore. That's why his injury is unfortunate for the Browns. That was a chance for Manziel to redirect the ugly statistics from the past six quarters.

Right now, that's all people remember. Manziel will need time -- and examples -- to change that.
CINCINNATI -- There's something else on the line when the Cincinnati Bengals host the Denver Broncos on ESPN's "Monday Night football" that's barely been mentioned this week.

The AFC's 2-seed.

It's quite possible that if the heaviest of dominoes fall not only Monday night but also next week, the Bengals could end up having the opening round of the playoffs off.

What has to happen in order for that to take place?

Primarily, three things: for the Bengals (currently the AFC's No. 3 postseason seed) to beat the Broncos (currently the No. 2 seed), for the Bengals to beat the Steelers next week at Pittsburgh, and for the Broncos to lose next week to Oakland. Even if the Bengals win Monday but have a second tie of the season next week, there are ways for them to get the No. 2 seeding. They are detailed below.

It's improbable that 11-3 Denver would fall to the three-win Raiders next week, let alone that it would drop two straight games entering the postseason. But it's still possible. It's also very possible that Cincinnati could end up winning these last two games, even if they both are in prime time. Next Sunday's game at Pittsburgh was just flexed into an 8:30 p.m. ET kickoff.

As you well know, the Bengals enter Monday's game having gone 2-6 in nighttime regular-season games since 2011, the year quarterback Andy Dalton became the starter.

Before the Bengals can truly entertain thoughts about playoff seeding, they have to first make the postseason. After a little confusion from information passed along from the NFL earlier in the day, we have updated scenarios for what must take place in order for the Bengals to clinch a playoff spot, even if they go winless in their last two games.

Here they are from the NFL and ESPN Stats & Information:


Bengals clinch AFC North title with:

1) CIN win

Cincinnati clinches a playoff spot with:

1) CIN tie OR

2) BAL loss or tie OR

3) SD loss


Cincinnati clinches a playoff spot

Cincinnati clinches AFC North title with:

1) CIN win or tie

Cincinnati clinches a first-round bye (and No. 2 seeding) with:

1) CIN win + DEN loss (vs. OAK) or tie OR

2) CIN tie + DEN loss + IND loss or tie
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Could the Baltimore Ravens face a practice squad quarterback for a second straight week?

Connor Shaw, a rookie who is the the winningest quarterback in the University of South Carolina football history, will be given reps with the Cleveland Browns' first-team offense this week because Johnny Manziel is out with a hamstring injury and Brian Hoyer is day-to-day with a shoulder injury.

It was only a day ago when the Ravens lost to the Houston Texans and quarterback Case Keenum, who had been signed off the St. Louis Rams' practice squad.

Asked about the possibility of playing against Shaw, Harbaugh said, "We've had some experience with that. He played in the preseason. We'll watch it. I've got a feeling Brian Hoyer might show up."

The news about the Browns' quarterback situation occurred during Harbaugh's Monday afternoon media conference, so the coach was receiving updates off Twitter from a reporter.

Reporter: "Connor Shaw might have to start."

Harbaugh: "Is Hoyer hurt?"

Reporter: "Hoyer has a shoulder injury."

Harbaugh: "Oh does he. Good."

After hearing laughter to his comment, Harbaugh quickly clarified himself, saying, "It's not good that he has a shoulder injury. I'm not rooting for injuries. I just didn't know."

The Ravens beat Hoyer in Week 3, when they won in Cleveland, 23-21. Hoyer completed 19 of 25 passes for 290 yards and one touchdown.

W2W4: Broncos vs. Bengals

December, 22, 2014
Dec 22
CINCINNATI -- A few storylines to watch Monday night when the Cincinnati Bengals host the Denver Broncos at Paul Brown Stadium:

Line anchors: Keep your eyes trained on the Bengals' offensive line. Not only will the unit have a massive challenge to contend with in the running game -- both literally and figuratively -- in the form of Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, but it will have a pair of tough-to-block edge rushers in the passing game, too. An athletic 330 pounds, Knighton is adept at plugging holes on interior rushing plays. The presence of DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller on the outside doesn't make it easy for rushers to cut back outside if the inside run is a no-go. Ware and Miller also are among the game's most effective rushers in passing situations. If the Bengals have any hope at moving the football Monday, it will be to play physically with Knighton in the run, and to provide solid pockets when quarterback Andy Dalton is passing. One way the Bengals are doing that on the right side of their line, in particular, is by anchoring the unit with veteran Eric Winston. Expect him to get his first Bengals start there, lining up opposite Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

Red zone a factor: Cincinnati's defense will try hard to keep the Broncos out of the red zone, but recent trends show that might not be a bad thing if it happens. According to ESPN Stats & Information, after leading the league in red-zone completion percentage, touchdown passes and total QBR through his first 11 games, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning ranks outside the top 20 in each category over the past three weeks. The absence of tight end Julius Thomas for two of those three contests correlated with the declining production inside the 20. Although Thomas returned last week, he wasn't that effective on his hurt ankle. He is considered healthier this week, which means you should look for him to play a bigger role in the red zone Monday for the Broncos. He entered the week leading the league in red-zone touchdown catches with nine.

Toss it to Green: As much as we have hammered home all week the importance of the Bengals running the football in this game, you simply can't ignore the fact that this is a team with A.J. Green on its roster. Cincinnati has to be smart with the way it runs the ball, but it also has to be savvy about the way it utilizes Green, the Pro Bowl wide out who went on a four-game tear in November and early December, catching 33 passes for 529 yards and three touchdown. He was at his best in that stretch in the deep passing game. Of his 33 catches, 12 came on throws that traveled 10 yards or more in the air. All three of his touchdowns came on such throws, including an 81-yard reception against Pittsburgh. What helped him get open downfield for those catches? The running game. Specifically, the play-action pass that resulted from it. With linebackers and safeties flowing up to the line of scrimmage to stop the run, Green has been single-covered by the end of recent games. Be on the lookout for similar opportunities Monday if Cincinnati's running game gets going early.
PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers appear to have good health on their side as they try to win their first AFC North title since 2010.

Left tackle Kelvin Beachum (back) and linebacker Vince Willams (ankle) were the only players who sustained injuries of note in the Steelers’ 20-12 win Sunday over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin did not indicate that either injury is serious, and he expects Beachum to play Sunday night against the visiting Cincinnati Bengals.

Tomlin did not mention quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Monday when he provided an injury update.

Roethlisberger went to the Steelers’ locker room in the third quarter to get his right knee examined by team doctors, but the 11-year veteran returned to the game. Roethlisberger said he was “fine” after throwing for 220 yards and a touchdown against the Chiefs and completing 72 percent of his passes.

“Largely we came out of this game relatively healthy,” Tomlin said Monday at his weekly news conference.

Strong safety Troy Polamalu (knee), cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm, shoulder) and tight end Matt Spaeth (elbow) did not play against the Chiefs because of injuries. All three will be evaluated this week, Tomlin said.

The Steelers (10-5) have clinched a playoff berth. They will win the AFC North and get a home game in the wild-card round of the AFC playoffs if they beat the Bengals.

Steelers' defense embraces challenge

December, 22, 2014
Dec 22
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he knew points might be hard to come by against a Kansas City Chiefs defense that is one of the best in the NFL against the pass.

That is why he challenged the Steelers’ defense last week to limit the Chiefs’ scoring in a crucial game for each team.

To say an oft-criticized unit responded would be an understatement.

The Steelers kept the Chiefs out of the end zone Sunday in a 20-12 win at Heinz Field, and that was no small feat considering Kansas City entered the game as one of the NFL's best offensive teams inside opponents’ 20-yard line. The Chiefs had scored touchdowns 67.5 percent of the time they were inside opponents’ 20-yard line, second best in the NFL, entering their game against the Steelers.

They went 0-for-4 in the red zone against the Steelers, settling for three field goals and getting stopped on fourth-and-1 from Pittsburgh’s 12-yard line near the end of the first half.

“Really loved the spirit of the defense,” Tomlin said after the Steelers improved to 10-5.

The Steelers have given up just two touchdowns the last eight times their opponent has moved inside their 20-yard line. Their red-zone defense is one of the biggest reasons why the Steelers are in position to win the AFC North for the first time since 2010.

The Steelers will win the division and secure no worse than the No. 4 seed in the AFC if they beat the visiting Cincinnati Bengals next Sunday night.

Here is a recap of ESPN’s Steelers coverage from Sunday:
  • Outside linebacker James Harrison keyed the Steelers’ six-sack performance against the Chiefs, showing the 12th-year veteran still has plenty of football left in him -- even if he doesn’t necessarily want to hear it.
  • The future is now for rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who turned in the best game of his young career and made one of the plays of the game.
  • The Steelers are happy to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011, but they are anything but satisfied after winning at least 10 games for the fifth time in Tomlin’s eight seasons as the head coach.
  • Sal Paolantonio caught up with Le’Veon Bell after the Steelers running back grinded out 63 rushing yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.

Here is what the Pittsburgh columnists are saying about the Steelers:
  • The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Rob Rossi writes that the Steelers will enter the playoffs as a dangerous team.
  • The Steelers may not be Super Bowl favorites, writes Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier, but did anybody see them clinching a playoff spot with a week left in the regular season?
  • The Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook takes a look at outside linebacker James Harrison, who apparently ages better than wine.
PITTSBURGH – In a game in which Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison delivered another turn-back-the-clock performance, Stephon Tuitt showed why he has such a promising future.

And why the future is now for the rookie defensive end.

Tuitt played the best game of his fledgling career Sunday afternoon as he recorded his first NFL sack and forced his first fumble in the Steelers’ 20-12 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

The play on which the Chiefs committed the game’s only turnover encapsulated why the Steelers have long thought they got a steal in the second round of the 2014 draft when they gleefully selected Tuitt.

The 6-foot-5, 303-pound Tuitt belted Chiefs Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles after a 3-yard catch and run, forcing a fumble that linebacker Vince Williams recovered. The turnover halted a Chiefs' third-quarter drive with the Steelers holding a tenuous 10-6 lead.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin seemed just as excited as Tuitt, who is only 21 years old, after the latter flashed speed and great pursuit on one of the key plays of the game.

“The energy out there was great,” said Tuitt, who recorded three tackles against the Chiefs. “The way we prepared during the week, we really knew that we were going to be able to do that today.”

Tuitt has shown steady improvement while patiently biding his time. He did not receive significant snaps for much of the season but has emerged since Brett Keisel went down with a season-ending triceps injury.

Tuitt supplanted Cam Thomas as the starting left defensive end three games ago and the former Notre Dame standout is just now showing how good he can be with the Steelers poised to win their first AFC North title since 2010.

“We always used to tell him, ‘Your time’s coming. You just have to play your part,’” said left guard Ramon Foster, who practices regularly against Tuitt. “And now he’s really showing it. I’m proud of the way he’s playing so far. But he’s got to get better because the season is just getting started. It’s getting really hot now.”
CINCINNATI -- Next Sunday's Bengals-Steelers game will be in prime time.

The NFL announced during halftime of Sunday's night's Seahawks-Cardinals game that next Sunday's game between the AFC North rivals will have an 8:30 p.m. ET kickoff at Heinz Field. It will be broadcast by NBC.

The game had been originally scheduled for 1 p.m. ET, but was subject to being flexed into the night slot because of the NFL's rules about late-season scheduling. Typically, games are flexed in Week 17 if postseason implications are on the line.

It was a bit of a surprise announcement, considering the Bengals could actually end their playoff mystery Monday night when they host the Denver Broncos on ESPN. With a victory, Cincinnati would be in. With a loss, the Bengals must win next week at Pittsburgh in order to reach the postseason for a franchise-record fourth straight year. The Bengals could still sneak in with two losses, but it would need help from others.

The Steelers clinched a playoff spot Sunday afternoon by beating Kansas City 20-12.

If the Bengals win Monday's game over the Broncos, they still could play for a division title. Currently, Cincinnati leads the AFC North, but only by a half game by virtue of its Week 6 tie with Carolina.

Coming six days after the Bengals' game against the Broncos, this will be Cincinnati's fourth prime-time game this season. It went 0-2 in the first two, losing in blowout fashion to New England (43-17) and Cleveland (24-3). Since 2011, the year quarterback Andy Dalton became starter, the Bengals are 2-6 in prime time. Factor in an 0-3 record in the playoffs since then and their "big-game" record drops to 2-9.

Pittsburgh won the teams' Week 14 meeting in Cincinnati 42-21, bolstered by 25 unanswered fourth-quarter points.
HOUSTON -- Sitting in front of his locker after getting beat up in a 25-13 loss to the Houston Texans, quarterback Joe Flacco tried to figure out which teams needed to lose in order for the Baltimore Ravens to make the playoffs.

There would be no need for such a conversation if Joe Cool didn't melt down under the Texans' pressure.

Flacco threw incompletions on 17 of his first 20 passes. He was intercepted three times, all of which came deep in Ravens' territory.

This was Flacco's worst game at the worst possible time. As Flacco's passes sailed high over the middle and veered out of bounds, the Ravens (9-6) watched any control of their playoff destiny float away with them.

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsIn the first half, Joe Flacco complete 3 of 18 passes for 27 yards and two interceptions.
Yes, there were other factors -- no running game, poor pass protection and dropped passes -- that contributed to the Ravens producing their fewest total yards (211) in 21 games. But this is the time of year where quarterbacks carry their teams to the postseason, especially ones with $100 million contracts.

Tony Romo threw four touchdowns as the Dallas Cowboys clinched a playoff berth. Aaron Rodgers fought off the flu and a calf injury to pass for 300 yards as the Green Bay Packers punched their ticket to the postseason. And Philip Rivers guided a clutch comeback to keep the San Diego Chargers alive.

What did the Ravens get under center? Flacco resembled Kyle Boller more than a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. He was inaccurate, impatient and uncharacteristically gun shy. In the end, Flacco lost to a fourth-string quarterback in Case Keenum, who was on a practice squad the previous week.

"People are going to look at his stats and say it was horrible," wide receiver Torrey Smith said of Flacco's performance. "He took his shots and showed his toughness again. It’s on us to protect him and make plays for him and we didn’t get the job done today."

Even though Flacco has struggled with consistency throughout his career, this clunker stunned the Ravens. He was having a career year in his first season under offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, and he had a four-game streak with a passer rating of 99 or higher. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said there was no hint of such a flop, saying one pass hit the ground on the final two practices of the week.

That wasn't the Flacco who showed up Sunday. It was like James Flacco suddenly appeared.

"We got our ass kicked," said Flacco, who finished 21 of 50 for 195 yards. "There's no other way about it. Our defense played well. Our special teams played well, and we didn't do a single thing on offense. We just got beat up and whooped."

No one got beat up more than Flacco. The Texans sent well-timed blitzes to hit Flacco a total of 10 times. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Flacco attempted 16 passes when under duress Sunday, his most such attempts since Week 6 of the 2009 season. He was 4-of-16 (25 percent) when under duress Sunday.

Even when he wasn't under pressure, Flacco faded back on some passes and failed to step into throws. This led to a nightmare first half, when he completed 3 of 18 passes for 27 yards and two interceptions. Flacco's 16.7 completion rate was the worst completion rate in a half in his career and the worst in a half for any quarterback this season (minimum 10 attempts), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Last season, the Ravens missed out on the playoffs because Flacco struggled in the last two games with a knee sprain. The combination of the number of hits and incompletions on Sunday made you wonder whether Flacco was playing hurt.

"I was not injured," he said.

Flacco is lucky in that regard when looking at his offensive teammates. Running back Justin Forsett turned his ankle and didn't play the final nine minutes. Starting offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Rick Wagner limped out of the locker room wearing protective boots.

The way this is shaping up, the Ravens are going to need Flacco to step up and not stumble like he did Sunday.

"We've been in this situation last year, where we didn't really control our own destiny, and we didn't play well," Flacco said. "All we can control is going out there and next week against Cleveland and winning a football game."
PITTSBURGH -- If James Harrison re-retires after this season and doesn’t return to the Pittsburgh Steelers as a 37-year-old, he won’t be able to blame the young man sitting next to him in the home locker room at Heinz Field on Sunday.

After turning in another age-defying performance in helping the Steelers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 20-12 to return to the playoffs, Harrison said the decision to return next season was out of his hands.

“My little dude told me I can’t come back for another year,” he said.

“No, I did not!” was his son's response.

After what might have been the Steelers’ finest defensive performance of the season, Harrison admitted that the idea to keep playing might pop up.

[+] EnlargeJames Harrison
AP Photo/Tom PuskarSteelers outside linebacker James Harrison, shown walking out of Heinz Field with his son Sunday, hasn't closed the door on a return next season.
“The way I feel it may drift into my head a little bit,” Harrison said. “I’ve got to keep it blocked out.”

Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2013 NFL draft, had trouble keeping Harrison blocked out, and quarterback Alex Smith paid the price.

The Steelers sacked Smith six times, their most in a game in two years, and Harrison led the charge. He sacked Smith 1.5 times and also recorded a pair of quarterback hits and two tackles for loss. Harrison’s teammates fed off his energy, and the Steelers did not need to blitz relentlessly to get to Smith.

All six of their sacks, in fact, came when they rushed four or fewer players, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The flexing of the muscles by a defense that has been maligned this season couldn’t have come at a better time. The Steelers appear to be putting everything together, and they will secure the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs if they beat the visiting Cincinnati Bengals next Sunday.

“We’re starting to mesh together, and guys are doing their job more consistently,” Harrison said. "Not too many lapses. That’s just really showed today, and that’s something we’ve got to continue to do.”

Harrison has given his younger teammates someone to follow as the 12th-year veteran has extensive postseason experience and keeps proving he can play at a high level.

“He was beast mode,” Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said after Harrison tied Jason Gildon for the most multisack games (17) in franchise history. “You all don’t watch the ins and outs of practice, but that happens at practice all the time.”

“He’s ageless and timeless and continues to be big for us,” Steelers linebacker Vince Williams said.

Harrison never had any intention of playing again after he announced his retirement on Sept. 5 at Steelers headquarters. The Steelers talked the five-time Pro-Bowl linebacker into playing one more season after right outside linebacker Jarvis Jones dislocated his wrist a couple of weeks into the season. But Harrison made it clear that he returned more out of a sense of obligation to his former teammates than a passion to play.

He also maintained that he would have never rejoined the Steelers had his two young sons been against the idea.

It looks like one of them would not have a problem with him playing next season as well.

So, James, any chance you will play in 2015?

“I'm worried about Cincinnati, man,” he said.

Harrison then laughed and turned around.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – After huddling with team spokespersons, Johnny Manziel approached the podium for a news conference that barely lasted four minutes.

Nearly half the segment was Manziel stumping for the right to quarterback the Browns’ future, sounding like a guy who whose season just ended after 35 throws because of a hamstring injury. Manziel was making a case. He took direct questions – did you feel more comfortable this week – and, 90-plus seconds later, had covered why this year made him “more hungry” to work in the offseason and sustaining success and building on a talented roster.

“I want to be the guy,” Manziel said. “That’s what I want to do and that’s what I want to be for this organization, so for me, if anything, this has motivated me more to head into this offseason.”

Manziel probably said more in the news conference about his future than he did on the field. If the hamstring injury persists and Brian Hoyer starts in the finale against Baltimore, Manziel’s seven full quarters of rookie quarterback play didn’t resolve much of anything.

Starting from the Buffalo game, Manziel’s body of work is brief, mostly uninspired football that’s far too small a sample to define him as anything – a bust, an elite quarterback, a money sign.

This is what you got:
[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Mike McCarnIf a hamstring injury keeps Johnny Manziel from playing in the Browns' season finale, there were just seven quarters in which to judge the team's first-round quarterback.

  • 34 throws (35 if you count his one attempt early in the season in the Johnny Package)
  • 15 full drives
  • 18 completions
  • 68 plays
  • 10 three-play drives (nine three-and-outs, one resulting in an interception)
  • Two scoring drives
  • 12 first downs (three by penalty)
  • Two interceptions
  • One touchdown run
  • One field goal
  • And 175 passing yards

That’s 0.66 points and 0.8 first downs per drive. The Heisman Trophy-winning Manziel was hard to defend, but these numbers are just that.

The most important facts, however, are the first two listed above – drives and throws. There’s not enough information to make any sort of long-term determination. If going by the eye test, which many will do, Manziel needed to clean up his footwork and decision-making last week against Cincinnati and seemed to be doing some of that in Carolina, playing better despite missing on a few throws.

The Browns need to see whether Manziel can catch fire as a passer, and what he does when defenses douse that flame. They need to see how he handles a full offseason as the incumbent. They’ll need to see how he leads. They’ll need to see…everything.

What you can argue is this: Was he ready? That’s a fair question. After training camp and 14 NFL weeks, was he ready to be a starter or did he need the proverbial redshirt year?

Manziel’s four-week stretch complicates that answer. Either he wasn’t ready or he didn’t get enough reps to show he was.

“We’ve seen Johnny every day, all year; we know what Johnny’s capable of,” said wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who caught Manziel’s best pass of the day, a 28-yarder over the middle that Manziel delivered from the pocket. “He’s a great talent and can be a great quarterback in this league.”

The Buffalo game was the only glimpse into what Hawkins is saying. That’s why Manziel should stump for something else – the right to start against Baltimore. Rehab that hamstring and get back. There’s risk involved if Manziel struggles again, but ending with a good performance might quell some concerns within a reactionary fan base.

The stand-alone numbers won’t do that. The "Johnny Football" mystique is gone, and the only way to get it back is to answer the question those numbers present.

Is this who you are?
The Baltimore Ravens lost control of their playoff destiny in losing at Houston 25-13, and they now need the Cincinnati Bengals or San Diego Chargers to fold in order to reach the postseason.

The Ravens were eliminated in the race for the AFC North title. By my estimation, there are only two ways the Ravens can get into the playoffs as a wild card, and both first require the Ravens to beat the Cleveland Browns in the regular-season finale at M&T Bank Stadium.

Here are the scenarios:
If the Bengals win Monday night, the Ravens would only get into the playoffs if they win and the Chargers lose.

"We have a big week next week," wide receiver Steve Smith said. "Last game of the season. It’s make or break. It says everything. Honestly, we don’t have a choice to sit around and analyze [the loss in Houston] and woe is me and come up with excuses."

The Ravens were eliminated from winning the AFC North title because the Pittsburgh Steelers won Sunday. Their only chance of reaching the playoffs is earning a wild-card spot.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Cleveland Browns have again gotten themselves into a sticky situation.

The result of the last month of the season, which has seen the Browns' record dip from 6-3 and 7-4 to a stumbling 7-8 after a 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers, is this: The Browns may have less clarity at the most important position on the team than they did before the season started.

Fifteen games ago, the Browns at least had Brian Hoyer starting the season coming off two wins in two full games in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonIn six quarters of play, Johnny Manziel hasn't done anything to suggest he'll be a successful starting QB in 2015.
Now they have Hoyer, who knows that the team really did not want him for the long run, and Johnny Manziel, who in his six quarters of play simply has not looked NFL-ready.

Do the Browns really believe that Manziel is the guy for '15 based on what they’ve seen?

If Manziel played that way in games, there’s little doubt that it's the way it went in practice. Manziel spent 14 games awaiting a chance, then looked like he just picked up the playbook that Monday.

Do the Browns revisit Hoyer and sign him before he becomes a free agent and spend many dollars to do so after they replaced him in 2014? Is it worth re-signing a guy they did not even commit to for 16 games?

Hoyer has struggled the past few games he has started as he's tried to win three games at once -- against himself, the looming presence of the phenom first-round pick and the other team.

How Hoyer has responded to the presence of Manziel will fairly be a factor in his evaluation. But to sell the idea that Manziel was more prepared to win was selling snake oil.

If Manziel played like he did with an entire training camp and preseason to prepare, well then, there’s trouble.

Barring a miraculous transformation, the ever-present possibility of a struggling Manziel and 5-11 record loom for next season.

It’s just a ridiculous mess, with visions of an offseason of adding Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace dancing in folks’ memory banks.

Manziel had one very nice throw in the loss to the Panthers, a stand-in-the-pocket, 28-yard completion to Andrew Hawkins on third down. Very nice play.

Other than that, he threw seven times, completed two passes and gained 4 yards. (The other first-round pick, Justin Gilbert, mainly watched as fourth-round pick Pierre Desir got the bulk of the playing time with Joe Haden out.)

The options for 2015 are not easy. Oregon QB Marcus Mariota probably will be drafted first, which means the Browns would have to give up all those first-round draft choices they have to get him -- assuming the team drafting first doesn’t want him. Only in Cleveland do folks talk of a near impossibility like Mariota as if it's a simple matter. Or, do the Browns want to bring Jameis Winston's off-the-field issues to the team?

The free agents? Hoyer is among them. Would Mark Sanchez be a step forward? Jake Locker? Blaine Gabbert? Do the Browns bring in a Matt Moore to back up Manziel and hope? Do they ponder Hoyer? And would Hoyer even re-sign with Cleveland?

There are so many questions that have grown the past few weeks, questions that should not be present after a 7-4 start. That kind of early-season play should have led to clarity.

But with the Cleveland Browns, there seems to be one annual tradition no matter who is in charge or involved: The season ends with uncertainty about next season’s quarterback.

It hasn’t gone on long.

Just the past 15
Observed and heard in the locker room after the Baltimore Ravens' 25-13 loss at the Houston Texans:

Starting offensive tackles are hurting: Right tackle Rick Wagner and left tackle Eugene Monroe both limped out of the locker room while wearing protective boots. Wagner had his on his left foot, while Monroe wore his on his right foot. Asked to update the injuries, coach John Harbaugh said, "Nothing I want to share right now. We'll just see how the guys come out of it and see where they're at." The offensive line that finished the game featured James Hurst at left tackle, Kelechi Osemele at left guard, Jeremy Zuttah at center, John Urschel at right guard and Marshal Yanda at right tackle. Monroe declined comment about the injury after the game.

No control: The Ravens knew they would earn a playoff spot by winning their final two games. After losing in Houston, the Ravens need other teams to lose in order to reach the postseason. "It’s a sick feeling to know you have no control over what’s next," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "We’re not used to it, to be honest."

Steve Smith vents his frustration: No one showed more emotion in the locker room than the Ravens' veteran wide receiver. He even lashed out at those who are going to criticize an offense that produced a season-low 211 yards. "We expect and understand and anticipate all of the negative feedback, and all of the fat, lazy, sorry couch quarterbacks are going to come out," Smith said. "We expect that and understand that. We're not going to pay attention to it."