CLEVELAND – Once stamped as meaningful for the Browns, Sunday's home game with Jacksonville has lost its luster.
Nearly every ounce of it.
Consecutive losses to AFC North foes Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have done serious damage to Cleveland's slim playoff hopes. That's reduced what promised to be an important matchup — even a gimme win — into something far less significant for the Browns (4-7).
Still, they're not about to pack in their season with five games left. In a season of unexpected twists and turns, there's time for a few more surprises.
"You got to keep fighting," cornerback Joe Haden said, "keep grinding."
While the Browns' season appears to have ground to a halt, the Jaguars (2-9) have hit something of a stride. After opening the season with eight losses by double-digits, Jacksonville has gone 2-1, with road wins at Tennessee and Houston.
"We're just coming into our own," said Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne. "There are a lot of good things happening. We're just trying to improve and put smiles on our faces and have fun while we go out and play."
Four weeks ago, the Browns were the ones having fun. After snapping an 11-game losing streak against Baltimore, Cleveland was suddenly in the playoff mix with a chance to make the postseason for the first time since 2002. But a funny thing happened on the way to respectability.
Since opening a 13-0 lead two weeks ago in the first quarter against the Bengals, the Browns have been outscored 68-18. Last week's loss to the dreaded Steelers was magnified by quarterback Jason Campbell suffering a concussion that will sideline him Sunday.
Campbell's injury has vaulted beleaguered QB Brandon Weeden back into the starting lineup for the third time. Browns fans can only hope three's a charm for Weeden, who was booed at home last week after replacing a woozy Campbell.
Though benched and belittled, sometimes for things out of his control, Weeden wants to make the most of his latest chance.
"Before I even throw a pass, we have a trick play and the trick play didn't work and I have to throw it away and I still get booed," he said. "You have to laugh it off, use it as ammo to go out and play well."
Here are five things to watch Sunday as the Browns, who with a win can match last season's total, try to get back into the playoff chase:
SHORTS STORY: The trip will be a familiar one for Jaguars wide receiver Cecil Shorts, a Cleveland native. Coming off an eight-catch game against Houston, Shorts is thrilled to have a chance to play in front of family and friends.
"It will kind of be like a dream come true," said Shorts, who was inactive for Jacksonville's visit in 2011.
NO JOSHING: Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon will have a tough time replicating his performance last week — ever. Gordon had 14 catches for a team record 237 yards against the Steelers.
Although a sizeable chunk of Gordon's yards came with the game out of reach, the second-year pro's effort was another sign of his growth as a player.
"He's way ahead of the young receivers I've been around in terms of the way he has developed through this year," offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. "You get an opportunity to have a game like that, you don't want it to be in a situation like that where you're behind, but the fact that he physically did it means that he's going to continue to do it and he's going to help this team win a lot of games."
BABICH BOWL: For a few hours, the Babich family will have divided loyalties.
Jacksonville defensive coordinator Bob Babich will face off with his son, Browns assistant defensive backs coach Bobby Babich. It will be the third meeting between the Babich family, with dad's team (Carolina in 2011-12) winning the first two.
"It's tough for his mom," the elder Babich said. "Me, I really don't mind going against him. He's a good kid and we're proud of him. He's a young guy in the NFL and it's fun to see his growth."
JONES-DREW ON ROLL: Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew had a season-high 144 yards, 84 rushing, from scrimmage in last week's win over Houston and has scored a TD on the ground in three straight games. Jones-Drew has always gotten stronger later in the season, averaging 84.7 yards rushing per game in December with 16 TDs and eight 100-yard games.
WARD DEFIANT: Browns safety T.J. Ward did not back down from his strong words following last week's loss, when he criticized Cleveland's offense for too many turnovers and said the Browns' defense needed to create more scoring opportunities.
"I don't regret it," said Ward, who is scheduled to become a free agent in March but insists he wants to stay in Cleveland. "I want to win ballgames whether it's here or somewhere else. Hopefully it's here. I just want to win."
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