BEREA, Ohio - Browns cornerback Joe Haden has been impatiently waiting to play in an NFL game as significant as the ones he almost took for granted in college.
When Haden starred at Florida, the Gators had rivalry games with Florida State, conference games with Alabama, title games. Games in The Swamp and at Baton Rouge. Saturday after Saturday, they all meant something.
To this point, however, Haden's pro career has been devoid of games with substance.
Until now. Cleveland's moment has arrived.
On Sunday, the Browns (4-5) will visit the first-place Cincinnati Bengals (6-4) with a chance to move up in the AFC North and paint themselves into a playoff picture they've been absent from for years. It's Cleveland's biggest game since at least 2007, and for Haden, it's easily his most prominent game since college.
"My `nati,' " he said, referring to Florida's 2008 matchup with Oklahoma and not Cincinnati. "My national championship game at Florida. Because all of those games at Florida, they were all big. But the game really, really means something to the Browns."
About time. And the Browns believe they're ready for it.
Following a turbulent first two months, they arrived in November hitting their stride. They beat Baltimore, ending an 11-game losing streak to the defending Super Bowl champions. Now, after a bye week to heal their bumps and bruises and address a sickly running game, the Browns are facing their biggest test.
"We're ready," linebacker Paul Kruger said. "We're excited. Guys are healthy. I feel like we're kind of hitting on all cylinders. We're right where we want to be. We're in a good situation. We've just got to capitalize."
Confidence shouldn't be an issue.
In their previous matchup with Cincinnati, the Browns held the Bengals to 266 yards and two field goals in a 17-6 win. Both teams have undergone major lineup changes since because of injuries, but the Browns haven't altered the one-play-at-a-time, one-game-at-a-time approach coach Rob Chudzinski has been preaching since training camp.
"It is a big moment," said left tackle Joe Thomas. "But it doesn't feel any different in this locker room because the goals are still the same, the way we're going to go out and play are still the same, what we're trying to do on offense and defense and how we're studying and practicing, it's all the same.
"it just gets more exciting as the season starts winding down and things tighten up in the race."
For years, the Browns have only watched the race. Cleveland has made the playoffs once since 1999, in 2002, the last time the Browns went 2-0 against the Bengals. They don't have much experience in crucial games, but safety T.J. Ward isn't worried that he and his teammate will be overwhelmed by the limelight.
"We don't shy away from any competition," Ward said. "The stage isn't too big for the team we have right now.
I think we're going to get better at that and just keep improving. The more we play together, the closer we get, the more cohesion we build. We're just going to keep improving."
If the Browns can sweep the Bengals, they've got a favorable schedule with home games the next two weeks against Pittsburgh (3-6) and Jacksonville (1-8).
Before beating Baltimore, the Browns pushed the unbeaten Chiefs (9-0) to the limit before losing 23-17. In past seasons, a similar loss would have been deflating and invariably followed by another one. However, this Cleveland team viewed it as a positive and another sign of development.
On Sunday, they can grow into a contender.
"We're ready," said defensive tackle Phil Taylor, "and we've showed people what we can do with the top-notch teams. Like with the Chiefs, they're 9-0 right now and we wish we could have that game back, the first half at least, how we did `em the second half. We know we can go out there and do it, we've just got to go out there and get it together."
Haden's ability to contain Bengals star wide receiver A.J. Green was one of the keys to Cleveland's earlier win over Cincinnati. Green had seven catches for 51 yards, but he's been on a tear since. He leads the league in yards receiving (1,013) and has five straight 100-yard games.
Haden draws the same assignment this week. He's confident that as long as he and his teammates stay focused, this won't be the last important game they'll play this season.
"When we approached the first game we studied film, we went out there and played and we did what we had to do," he said. "If we go about it the same way we played, everybody does their jobs, everything will work itself out. This is really an important game for us. But at the same time, that's the way we got to where we are now, going game by game."
NOTES: Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton raised some eyebrows
when he called S Tashaun Gipson the club's defensive MVP. "He's done a remarkable job for us," Horton said. ... RB Willis McGahee got his usual day off from practice to rest his knees. ... TE MarQueis Gray (hamstring) also missed practice.