CLEVELAND (AP) — As they walked out of FirstEnergy Stadium into the darkness more than a week ago, the Browns couldn’t celebrate their biggest win in an uneven season as a cloud of uncertainty hung over them.
It burst open.
They return Sunday a changed team.
Myles Garrett’s jaw-dropping, helmet-swinging assault on Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph last week in front of national TV audience has altered everything for the Browns (4-6), who could move deeper into the AFC playoff mix with a win over the Miami Dolphins (2-8), a team that has had its own recent share of turbulence.
Garrett won’t play again in 2019 — and it’s not known when he’ll be back in 2020 — after he was suspended indefinitely by the NFL for his attack on Rudolph. The star’s appeal was denied this week, leaving the Browns to move on without their top defensive player and further complicating a season filled with drama and adversity.
It’s been one obstacle after the next.
“I’ve had a tattoo on my arm since I was probably 18, ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy,’” wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. “Adversity is a true test of character and we are going through it right now, we’ve been going through it.
“We’ve stood firm and we’ve fought and we’ve battled and we’ve come out with scars and scratches. We’ve lost, but the main thing is we fought and we’re finding ways to overcome any kind of adversity So as long as we stick together as a team, I feel very confident in this group that we can go out and get a win this weekend. But it’s never going to be easy.”
The Dolphins have dealing with their own challenges.
They’ve played well of late, winning two of three following an 0-7 start. But Miami took some roster hits this week with starting safeties Reshad Jones and safety Bobby McCain going on injured reserve and leading rusher Mark Walton being cut after his arrest on charges he punched his pregnant girlfriend.
It’s been a tough swim for the Dolphins.
“You try to make the best out of it,” said quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. “There’s a lot of those things that we don’t control as players. We just go out there and play. That’s kind of how we have to approach it.”
No Browns player is more excited for Sunday’s game than receiver Jarvis Landry, who spent four seasons with the Dolphins before being traded.
“A lot of history,” he said.
Landry performed at a Pro Bowl level for the Dolphins, but his personality clashed with coach Adam Gase and the team didn’t meet his demands for a long-term contract.
“I don’t really hold onto it,” Landry said. “At the time when it happened, maybe then, just how things were communicated. Now I’m happy to be here. This is one of the games that I knew in two years I’d get a chance to have. I’m happy it’s here.”
The Dolphins rank next to last in the NFL in rushing defense, which could be a problem against Cleveland’s Nick Chubb, who went over 1,000 yards last week.
Miami gave up 168 yards — 114 in the first half — to Buffalo last week.
“That’s ridiculous,” said tackle Davon Godchaux. “I take full blame for it, being a captain on the team. I promise you we’ll get it fixed.”
The Browns could be missing four starters from a defense coming off its best game this season.
In addition to Garrett, Cleveland will be without tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who was suspended one game for shoving Rudolph and safety Morgan Burnett, who tore his Achilles tendon against the Steelers. Defensive end Olivier Vernon didn’t practice this week and has missed the past two games with a sprained knee.
Fitzpatrick said he’s partly to blame for being sacked seven times in last week’s loss to Buffalo. He’s only been sacked more than that once in 15 seasons.
“Every sack has its own little story,” Fitzpatrick said. “I have to get the ball out better in some of those situations.”
Fitzpatrick, who turns 37 on Sunday, feels good even though he has been sacked 24 times, his highest total since 2012.
“Nobody’s going to write a book about my training regimen or my diet. I know that,” joked Fitzpatrick, 5-1 in his career against Cleveland. “But there are just some years for whatever reason you get bumps and bruises and stuff lingers all year long, and then there’s other years where you’re getting hit a bunch but nothing really lingers, and that’s kind of where I’m at right now.”
The Dolphins’ offensive line has allowed 42 sacks, tied for the most in the NFL. The Browns tied a season-high with four sacks last week.
Dolphins offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea is pleased with how receiver DeVante Parker has blossomed in his fifth season. But O’Shea would like more balance in the receiving group.
“We’ve stressed the importance of other players contributing to the pass game as much as DeVante’s contributed,” O’Shea said. “That has been a real positive for us this year, and we’ll continue to use him, but I think it’s important for these other players to have opportunities as well.”
Parker is on pace for career highs in catches, yards receiving and touchdowns.