The last time the Cleveland Browns were in first place this late in a season, the franchise was still in version 1.0 with their contentious move out of the city two seasons away and their rebirth five years out.
Remaining at the top for another week would require them to spoil Ryan Mallett’s first NFL start as the Houston Texans visit Cleveland on Sunday with hopes of finding new offensive footing.
The Browns (6-3) last led their division entering Week 11 in 1994, and they went on to a wild-card berth in their next-to-last season before moving to Baltimore.
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For a team with at least 11 losses in each of the past six seasons and without a playoff berth since 2002, these Browns have already won more than most of their predecessors since Cleveland regained a franchise in 1999. They now seek their first four-game winning streak since closing a 5-11 2009 season with a string of meaningless victories.
Still, coach Mike Pettine is cautioning his team from feigning accomplishment, even after a dominant 24-3 showing in Cincinnati on Nov. 6. The Browns became the first visitor to win a regular-season game in Cincinnati since Dec. 9, 2012.
"There are no awards. There’s no prize for being 6-3," Pettine said. "The only thing that’s done for us is our games are meaningful now. You still have to have the ability to put that one in a box and move onto the next one."
That could be a particularly astute observation in an AFC North Division with all four teams at least two games over .500, though the Browns made it look easy last week.
Defensively, they limited the Bengals to 165 total yards and forced a season-high four turnovers. The 79 yards passing they allowed was their fewest since holding Seattle to 69 in 2011. Their run defense has limited opponents to an average of 91.7 yards over the three-game winning streak after surrendering 155.5 during a 3-3 start.
"We’re one step closer," linebacker Karlos Dansby told the team’s official website. "We’ve got to keep it together and keep finishing ball games."
The Browns have also had a plus-6 turnover margin in the last three weeks, which could grow against a green quarterback.
The Texans (4-5) come out of their Week 10 bye turning to Mallett, who spent the first three years of his career behind Tom Brady before being traded for a draft pick in August. He hasn’t thrown a pass this season while Ryan Fitzpatrick started the first nine games, but coach Bill O’Brien has confirmed this won’t be a one-week trial period. Mallett will remain the starter for the rest of the season.
"I’ve been waiting four years for this," Mallett said. "Now it’s my time to have an opportunity to show what I can do."
His impact will have to be substantial to turn the Texans into a passing force. They haven’t thrown for 300 yards this season and rank 28th (209.7).
Veteran receiver Andre Johnson downplayed the change.
"Whoever is at quarterback, it doesn’t matter," said Johnson, who has no 100-yard games this year after having six in 2013. "We all have to go out and do our jobs. It’s not just going to be about him. It’s going to be about all of us. All of us need to step our game up and go out and play the way we know how to play."
That form could certainly use some dusting off, having dropped four of five after a 31-21 home loss to Philadelphia on Nov. 2.
Houston, though, won’t have Arian Foster to complement Mallett. The AFC’s top rusher (822 yards) has been ruled out due to a groin injury suffered against the Eagles. Rookie sixth-round pick Alfred Blue will get his second start after rushing for 78 yards on 13 carries in place of an injured Foster in Week 3.
Foster also misses the chance to square off with his former backup, Ben Tate, though the first-year Browns back has ceded his lead role in recent weeks to Terrance West. He joined Tate and fellow rookie Isaiah Crowell with rushing TDs against the Bengals, but West has seen 41 carries the last two weeks while the other two have combined for 32.
"We’re winning," said Tate, averaging 1.9 yards per carry in the last four games. "We’re 6-3 and in first place, that’s all that really matters."
Mallett will face another former Brady backup in Brian Hoyer, whose time in New England overlapped Mallett’s in 2011. Hoyer has taken care of the ball with just four interceptions, and his INT rate (1.5 percent) trails only Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer among those with at least 200 attempts.
Who Hoyer will face on the other side of the ball is a bit in question. Houston’s Kareem Jackson is expected to miss the game with a knee injury, while fellow cornerback Johnathan Joseph has cleared concussion protocol. Linebackers Jadeveon Clowney and Brian Cushing have missed time with knee injuries. Clowney actually missed the Philadelphia game due to illness, and Cushing has been out for the last two games.
Cleveland tight end Jordan Cameron (concussion) and wide receiver Andrew Hawkins (leg) returned to practice Wednesday, but safety Tashaun Gipson missed a second straight day with a concussion and may sit out Sunday.
Houston has won the last two meetings, though the teams haven’t met since 2011.