BEREA, Ohio (AP) - The Browns have been trapped in the AFC North's basement for years. This week, they can begin climbing the steps.
There's nowhere to go but up.
On Sunday in Cincinnati, the Browns will begin a brutal stretch of games that will determine where they stand in their tough-from-top-to-bottom division. Over the next six weeks, Cleveland will play the Bengals once and Baltimore and Pittsburgh twice each. The only break in the December death march comes in a Dec. 18 trip to Arizona, which will be sandwiched around visits to the Ravens and Steelers.
"We're going to find out how good we are," said first-year coach Pat Shurmur.
The Browns, who lost their season opener 27-17 to the Bengals, have had a rough time inside the North, where the Ravens and Steelers have bullied them. Even their neighbors in southern Ohio have gotten in their shots. In the past three seasons, the Browns are 3-15 in the division and just 14-41 since 2002.
Shurmur has been preaching the one-game-at-a-time mantra that appears on Page One of every coaching manual. But don't be fooled, he's taken a peek at what's ahead and believes the Browns are ready to face the meatiest part of their schedule.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge," he said. "When the schedule comes out, people outside the building probably say, 'Boy this is a tough stretch.' That's just the way it is and then you go and play them out. If you're in the profession long enough, you coach enough years, it all balances itself out."
In the next six weeks, the Browns will see how far they've progressed - and how far they have to go. It should be a good barometer of their development.
"They're all going to be great battles," said Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas. "We feel the AFC North is one of the tougher divisions, and obviously Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are some of the better teams in the AFC, if not the NFL. So they're going to be a great test for us."
Now in his fifth season, Thomas said his body feels a little worse after a division matchup.
"A lot of times it comes down to who can control the line of scrimmage," he said. "When you win those battles, even if you win 'em, it's a physical battle and you're going to walk away with some bumps and bruises."
The Browns want to start dishing out their own punishment in the North. Until they can start beating the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens on a regular basis, the playoffs will remain elusive. With the five games still ahead, they can make a jump in the standings and in stature.
Defensive coordinator Dick Jauron likes the rough road ahead.
"It's a great thing," he said of Cleveland's upcoming schedule. "We have a great opportunity in front of us. These games are huge games. This game coming up is a huge game for both teams. (The Bengals) are coming off two tough losses in the division. We have one loss in the division, that was to them and we're starting our division play. It's really very exciting and really important."
The Browns could have running back Montario Hardesty in the lineup Sunday. He's missed the past three games with a calf injury, but the second-year back returned to practice Wednesday and will start this week as long as he doesn't have any setbacks.
If Hardesty can play, he'll be another option for Cleveland's offense, which got a career-high 115 yards from Chris Ogbonnaya last week in a win over Jacksonville.
After missing his rookie season following knee surgery, Hardesty made his NFL debut against the Bengals on Sept. 11. He came off the bench and picked up 18 yards on five carries.
"The first game against Cincinnati, I was just getting back into it," he said. "It's exciting. I think it's fun how our schedule is set up. Now we're onto the AFC North. There's a lot of good defenses and it's about to get cold, running the ball, this is a great time to come back and try to help our team. When it gets cold and the weather changes, you've got to have a good solid ground game. All the defenses in our division want to stop it and everyone wants to run it."
The Browns want to make their own run.
It may be farfetched to think Cleveland could make the playoffs. But since 1990, there have been eight teams with 4-6 records who have rallied to make the playoffs. The last team to do it was the New York Jets in 2009, and they made it to the AFC title game.
They can't get ahead of themselves now, not with those daunting dates in December ahead.
"I don't think we're in a position where we can look that far ahead," said linebacker Scott Fujita. "We've got to worry about this one opponent and trying to get better every week. That's just kind of the reality of our situation right now. We don't have the luxury of looking ahead, so we just have to get better and focus on the Bengals."
Shurmur has previously coached in the NFC East and West, and he's convinced his current division is just as tough - if not tougher.
"It's a real good one for a lot of reasons," he said. "It's a physical brand of football. You're looking at teams in the division that all have outstanding quarterbacks. You're looking at teams that are all way up in there in the rankings in defense. You're looking at teams that historically have won lots of games. For those reasons, it's fun."
Notes: Browns RB Peyton Hillis returned to practice for the first time since he aggravated his injured hamstring during practice Nov. 4. Hillis, who has already been ruled out of Sunday's game, did some light work in at least one individual drill, but did not take part in team drills. Hillis has missed six straight games with the injury. ... FB Owen Marecic did not practice as he recovers from a concussion. TE Alex Smith lined up at fullback.