CLEVELAND (AP) — ‘Tis the season for giving, and Hue Jackson’s about to get something before Christmas he can’t return.
Fired by the Browns in October after winning just three of 40 games as Cleveland’s coach, Jackson will return Sunday for the first time to face fans who haven’t forgotten or forgiven him.
“I’m sure he’ll get booed a lot, the fans will probably give him a hard time,” said Browns guard Joel Bitonio. “I think he understands that, too.”
Jackson figures to receive a frosty ho-ho-homecoming as the Browns (6-7-1) try to complete a two-game sweep of the Cincinnati Bengals (6-8), who hired Cleveland’s former coach as a special assistant shortly after his dismissal.
Jackson’s decision to join a division rival so quickly irritated several Browns players, who showed him their displeasure when the teams met last month.
After first predicting a win, safety Damarious Randall intercepted a pass near Cincinnati’s sideline and handed the ball to Jackson, who awkwardly accepted it during the first half of the Browns’ 35-20 victory on Nov. 25.
But the coldest moment came after the game when Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield gave his former coach an abbreviated handshake and then called Jackson “fake” in an Instagram comment the next day when the QB’s behavior was criticized.
Mayfield offered no regrets then for his actions or remarks, and this week said his relationship with Jackson hasn’t warmed.
“I said what I said,” Mayfield said. “We have to be able to come in, be able to block out the distractions, block out the outside noise like we have week to week every time this season and be able to do our job.”
Mayfield later said “no comment” when asked whether he or Jackson had reached out to the other since their previous meeting.
Jackson figures to have an uncomfortable visit to FirstEnergy Stadium, which is expected to be sold out. Since he left Cleveland, the Browns have turned their season around by going 4-2 — with a pair of road wins — under interim coach Gregg Williams.
The Bengals, on the other hand, have dropped five of six with Jackson serving again alongside coach Marvin Lewis.
Some of the Browns remain upset with Jackson and are using his slight to inspire them.
Unlike his teammates, Myles Garrett has moved on.
“Since he’s there, that’s still a motivating factor for them to try to get after it a little bit differently,” said the Pro Bowl defensive end. “But I want to beat them into the ground and I want to win. That’s with every team. It doesn’t matter who they are.”
The Bengals may be looking for payback to support Jackson, and that’s fine with Mayfield.
“Football is an angry, violent game,” he said. “If you play anything but (ticked) off, I do not think that you are doing it right.”
The Browns’ playoff push may come up short, but they still have a lot to play for. Cleveland hasn’t won more than seven games since 2007, the club’s most recent winning season.
Also, with wins over Cincinnati and Baltimore in the final two weeks, the Browns could finish 4-1-1 in the AFC North.
As far as Mayfield’s concerned, if any player has another goal, he can show them the door.
“We want to win our last two games,” he said. “If the guys on this team don’t want to do that, then you can get out.”
MIXON’S THE MAN
With receiver A.J. Green out for the season with an injured toe, running back Joe Mixon has become the focal point of the Bengals’ offense.
He’s run for 100 yards in each of the past two games and is tied with receiver Tyler Boyd for catches in the two-game span as well. Boyd hurt his right knee last Sunday, leaving Mixon as Cincinnati’s last, best option to move the ball.
“I feel great, not sore,” the second-year running back said. “It’s been a pretty heavy workload, but I’ve been waiting for it. I’m handling it the best way I can.”
Cleveland’s efficiency inside the red zone has been spectacular under offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, who took over when Todd Haley was fired the same day as Jackson.
The Browns have scored on 15 of 16 trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line in the past six games.
A loss would consign the Bengals to last place in the division. They’ve finished last only once during Lewis’ 16 previous seasons, in 2010.
For a team that was thinking about the playoffs after a 4-1 start, merely trying to avoid the basement isn’t much of a rallying point. Even if they win their final two games, the Bengals will have matched their longest postseason drought under Lewis — three straight years.
“We definitely don’t want to finish last, but I can’t say we have any extra motivation just because of that,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said.