- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
- 0 Shares
CLEVELAND -- During his seven years in Baltimore, running back Jamal Lewis often delivered a message to his offensive teammates once the fourth quarter arrived. The message itself never changed.
Let's finish them off.
On Sunday, Lewis offered that sentiment to his new team, the Cleveland Browns. And in contrast to their fantastic, dramatic endings of previous weeks, the Browns did indeed finish off their opponent Sunday, scoring the first 10 points of the fourth quarter and then letting Lewis use his 245-pound body to seal the deal on a 27-17 win over the Houston Texans.
Coach Approval Ratings
How would you judge the performance of Browns coach Romeo Crennel (right)? Click here to vote.
• To vote for all coaches, click here.
"We haven't finished a team off like we should have," said Lewis, whose team's past two wins have come in overtime. "We needed to show we can finish."
Lewis himself put on quite a display, rushing for 134 yards on 29 powerful carries. In the fourth quarter alone, he gained 54 yards on 14 attempts as he wore down the Texans' defense.
But this was more than a one-man show. It was a statement game for the 7-4 Browns, the NFL's Cinderella team. Instead of looking like some lucky squad that fortune has shined on this season, the Browns had the look and feel of a playoff team, one that doesn't beat you with tricks but with physical play. You can see their swagger, their confidence.
To be a playoff team, you must convert tough third and fourth downs. The Browns did on Sunday. Playoff teams also must convert in the red zone when primary receivers are covered. The Browns did.
"This team is pulling together," Lewis said. "We're a team. If you look back at all the championship teams, they were all teams -- one unit. You didn't have individuals. There are no individuals on this team."
The Browns certainly needed a group effort against the Texans, who tried to put the clamps on Cleveland's passing game with tighter coverage on tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Braylon Edwards. At 5-5 entering the game and desperate for a win to stay in the AFC wild-card race, Texans coach Gary Kubiak wasn't going to settle for a safe Cover 2 defense.
In fact, neither side was interested in playing it safe. Figuring this could be a high-scoring game, Kubiak and his counterpart, Browns coach Romeo Crennel, gambled on fourth downs to keep drives alive. The Texans didn't succeed on their one attempt, but the Browns converted two of their three fourth-down attempts.
But it wasn't just that the Browns were successful, but it was how they converted those fourth downs (and their rare third-down conversions -- just 3-of-13) that tells you this team is coming of age.
• Edwards converted a fourth down in the second quarter and a third down in the fourth quarter by catching slant passes despite having a defender draped on him. At 6-foot-3, Edwards can be a physical mismatch for opponents.
"Braylon made a couple of great plays," quarterback Derek Anderson said. "The Texans bodied up on the receivers with double press coverage. But Braylon gives me an easy target. He's a big-body guy. I try not to kill him when I get it in there."
• Winslow is simply amazing at getting open and making the impossible catch. Indeed, he may have the best hands of any pass catcher in football. He's also adept at creating space to make those catches. He caught a 7-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter by running to the goal line against a Cover Four defense and turning around, boxing out any player coming near him.
"I think it's his agility and his speed that makes him different than most tight ends," Anderson said. "Either a team has to put a linebacker in to stop the run, but he can beat a linebacker [or] they can put a safety or a nickel back on him, but then we are going to run the ball.
"I also think the big thing with him is that he goes and gets the ball. I will always give him a chance if it's one-on-one."
The Texans put safety C.C. Brown on Winslow most of the game, so the Browns responded with an emphasis on the ground game. And yet, Winslow still finished with 10 catches for 107 yards and a touchdown.
As good as Winslow is now, he knows he could be better. His knee still isn't completely healed from his motorcycle accident and follow-up surgeries. Yet he's playing as well as any tight end in football.
Asked if he's close to the player he was at the University of Miami, Winslow responded, "No, hell no. Man, it's really tough. I'm not going to talk about my injuries. But I'm not even close, not even close. I do stuff I have to do before games to get ready. I don't know about getting back to 100 percent, but I think I can get pretty close. Once the offseason comes, I'll talk about what I have to do to get as healthy as I can."
Winslow suffered a subluxation of the shoulder early in the season. After games, his body has welts and bruises. His knee hurts. Yet every once in a while, Winslow will remind the media that he's a soldier. The way he played Sunday should earn him general's stars.
He joked that he was bedridden on the Monday after the Seattle victory earlier this month because of various aches and pains. On some Mondays, he says he feels like he's 60 years old.
All the Browns know is he's becoming impossible to defend. And he catches everything.
Even so, there is no satisfaction with what the Browns have accomplished this season.
"We're 7-4, but we're not the Patriots, we're not undefeated," Winslow said. "We don't have any Super Bowl rings. We were 4-12 last year. We could easily have been 4-6. We can play a lot better than we've been playing."
One unit that has improved is the defense. The Browns held the Texans to 77 yards rushing and 10 points through most of the third quarter. After the game, the team gave a game ball to rookie cornerback Brandon McDonald, who covered Andre Johnson, one of the best receivers in football.
With starting cornerback Eric Wright out for a month with a knee injury, the Browns could have been vulnerable at cornerback. McDonald, mostly a special-teams player, jammed Johnson at the line of scrimmage, knowing he had safety help in double coverage behind him.
Johnson had just three catches for 37 yards, while McDonald came up with a big interception. It also helped that the Browns' safeties played physically and knocked the ball out of Texans receivers' hands. Just as Lewis preaches, the Browns finished.
"It was great for us to win at home today," Lewis said. "You have to win at home and half the games on the road. That's how I was taught. It's a great thing. We are doing well, staying poised and sticking together as a team."
If the playoffs started today, the Browns would be in for only the second time since 1995. But the playoffs don't start until the first week of January. The Browns still have five games left in the regular season.
Let's see if they can finish like a playoff team.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
14hEric D. Williams
15hSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo