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Browns have one last chance to get a victory

CLEVELAND — Sometimes coach Hue Jackson invites a special guest to speak to the Browns before a game.

But with the team staring at the dreaded record of 0-16 heading into Sunday’s season finale at the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jackson will be the one to deliver a speech about avoiding humiliating history.

And believe it or not, it isn’t expected to be a swan song for the embattled coach.

“I’m going to give that pep talk,” Jackson said. “I think I’m just the guy to do it. Obviously, the night before the game, I’m sure there will be a little bit more tension probably, per se, because of the next day, but I would hope that our guys still handle all of this the right way because you still have to be at your best. You have to go play your best. You can’t be too high or too low. You just have to go play.”

With 0-16 about to punch them in the mouths last season, the Browns ducked just in time, prevailing 20-17 over the San Diego Chargers in their second-to-last game Dec. 24 in Cleveland. However, there was no Christmas Eve miracle this past weekend against the Chicago Bears. The Browns lost 20-3 at Soldier Field, fell to 0-15 and have just one chance left to escape joining the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only NFL teams to finish a season 0-16. A New Year’s Eve miracle is now their only hope.

After firing head of football operations Sashi Brown, owner Jimmy Haslam announced Dec. 7 he would keep Jackson as the team’s coach for the 2018 season. Then Haslam doubled down the next day during the introductory news conference of general manager John Dorsey by saying Jackson will “absolutely” return, even if the Browns go winless.

However, skepticism about Haslam’s pledge and speculation about Jackson being fired haven’t subsided locally or nationally. As always, it’s worth remembering anything can happen in the NFL. No one knows whether the arranged marriage between Jackson and Dorsey will quickly disintegrate or if a coaching vacancy in Cincinnati would lead Jackson back to his old stomping grounds.

Yet entering this weekend, Haslam’s plan to stick with Jackson hadn’t changed.

Despite Jackson’s record of 1-30, the worst start with a team in NFL coaching history, he has insisted he’s convinced Haslam will make good on his word. The players have said they have the same expectation. They’re in this mess together, with the very real possibility of posting a perfectly pitiful record hanging over their heads and a satirical parade organized by a faction of the fan base scheduled for Jan. 6 in Cleveland.

“We don’t want to be on that side of history, so guys are preparing to go out and win a game on Sunday,” cornerback Jason McCourty said. “There’s probably been a sense of desperation for a while now, but this is the most desperate. Obviously, there’s no more opportunities after Sunday, so if you don’t win Sunday, there’s no way around it.”

A loss in Pittsburgh, where the Browns haven’t won since Oct. 5, 2003, would be viewed as inevitable if the Steelers (12-3) were to play all of their starters. But with a first-round postseason bye locked up, they’ll likely rest quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who’s 21-2 as a starter against the Browns, running back Le’Veon Bell and other key players, including center Maurkice Pouncey and defensive end Cameron Heyward. Roethlisberger and Bell sat out Friday’s practice for non-injury related reasons. Wide receiver Antonio Brown has been ruled out with a calf injury. Pouncey is listed as questionable to play with a hip injury.

“I haven’t really looked at it that way as in, ‘Maybe we’ll have a chance now,’” rookie defensive end Myles Garrett said. “We have a chance every time we step on the field. We just have to execute all the way down the stretch.”