*AtlantaFalcons.com contributing writer Daniel Cox takes a listen to Wednesday's conference calls with the Atlanta media from Cleveland head coach Eric Mangini and running back Peyton Hillis to break down what the opposing team is saying and thinking as it heads into a Week 5 meeting with the Falcons. *
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. —The 1-3 Cleveland Browns at first glance appear to be in the middle of "just another Browns losing season," but when you look closer, you'll find a roster of players that have scrapped, scratched and clawed their way through the first quarter of the season.
Last week against the in-state rival Cincinnati Bengals, the Browns got their first win — a 23-20 close call and a win they hope sets their season off in a better direction after some close losses.
"We've been in three close games and haven't been able to close them out," Browns head coach Eric Mangini said Wednesday during his conference call with the Atlanta media. "To be able to close this one out was important. I think you go through steps with any team and one of them is being competitive and the second one is learning how to win. That's an important step."
The Browns share a penchant for close games this season with the Falcons, but Atlanta has come out on the positive side of its nail-biters more often than not. Mangini believes the Falcons are a team of fighters that will go down to the wire with anyone.
But the team coming to Cleveland on Sunday is more than just a bunch of strong-willed brawlers. They're also a pretty good football team when it comes to executing what needs to happen to get wins.
"Looking at the Falcons, they're sound," the Browns' head coach said.
Mangini spoke glowingly about Atlanta's team, and it was beyond coach speak. He rattled off the stats to match it, listing Atlanta's ranking in time of possession, carries per game, turnover differential and penalties.
"That's good, solid, smart football," he said. "Combine that with all the different things they can do on offense, defense and special teams, they're going to be in every single game. Every time you play them, you better buckle up."
Cleveland's current starting running back, Peyton Hillis, faced the Falcons in 2008 as a rookie with the Denver Broncos. With Denver's backfield decimated with injuries, he stepped in with 44 rushing yards and two touchdowns and helped hand Atlanta its only home loss of the season.
Hillis sees a more mature and intelligent version of the 2008 team that he helped defeat.
"You can definitely tell that on the defense and offensive side of the ball," Hillis said, "with Matt Ryan leading that offense to where they need to be. They have a great passing attack and two big backs that can run the ball. On defense, they have so much speed on that side of the ball, they can get a lot accomplished."
Noticing hard-nosed players like Hillis on Cleveland's roster and listening to the 39-year-old Mangini, you get the sense the Browns are trying to build something like what the Falcons have accomplished in Atlanta. Cleveland's recent draft classes are starting to pay dividends and they've found a solid mix of veterans from around the league to bridge the gap to their youth.
It's a formula that worked in Atlanta, and Cleveland is trying to recreate it. Mangini admires what the Falcons have accomplished and how they go about it each week.
"I really like the style of football that the Falcons play, and it pays off," he said.
QB dilemma:The Browns brought in two new quarterbacks during the offseason, two veterans they felt could compete for the job and lead the offense in better directions than it had been in recent seasons.
Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace both have experience winning games in the NFL and have varying skill sets. Delhomme won the job out of training camp and did some positive things in Week 1's 17-14 loss to the Buccaneers. However, he sprained his ankle and has missed the past three games.
In his absence, Wallace has stepped in and kept Cleveland in its games, including a 103 quarterback rating and one-touchdown, no-interception effort against the Baltimore Ravens.
Delhomme has returned to practice, but Mangini said they'll need to monitor him closely before reaching a decision on who to start Sunday.
Ultimately, the head coach said he's comfortable with both players under center and believes he can win with either.
"It's a positive situation from that perspective," he said.
Unique weapons: Every team has a playmaker or two and they're often the high-profile, first-round type of guys.
Cleveland leans heavily on two players that don't fit that bill, but are still anything but ordinary.
Hillis, a fullback while in college at Arkansas, was a seventh-round draft pick of the Broncos in 2008 and he caught the eye of Mangini while the coach was with the New York Jets. When the opportunity to bring him to Cleveland came, he jumped at the chance.
"He was tough to deal with out of the backfield," Mangini said. "When we had an opportunity to get him, that was something that I really wanted to do, because I thought he had versatility. He plays on special teams, he plays fullback, he plays tailback and he's just a tough, physical guy that loves football."
Since taking over as the full-time running back in Week 3, Hillis has produced a 144-yard, one-touchdown effort and a 102-yard, one-touchdown day in last week's win.
Joshua Cribbs, a do-everything man for Cleveland, is adding another title to all the things he already did for the Browns.
Already an accomplished return man, special teams maven and a unique weapon in the running game, the undrafted free agent has worked to raise his contributions as a pass catcher for Cleveland.
Mangini recognized Cribbs for the athlete that he is and believed he could be successful at it. After a season of getting his feet wet last year, Cribbs already has 12 receptions for 167 yards.
"He was pretty raw at it last year, still had 20 catches," Mangini said. "This year, he's gotten better. He runs his routes at a much higher level. He understands the offense a lot better and he's been productive early in the wide receiver position for us."
The head coach described his x-factor as a "busy guy," and on Sunday, the Falcons will stay as busy ensuring they know his location on the football field at all times.