Today's game features two teams headed in opposite directions.
HOUSTON (AP) -- The Cleveland Browns could learn a thing or two about how to build an expansion franchise from the Houston Texans.
When next season begins, the Browns will likely be on their fourth coach and third personnel chief since their inaugural season in 1999.
Meanwhile, the third-year Texans are one win shy of finishing .500 this season and should be postseason contenders in 2005.
Both teams meet in Houston for their season finale today, making for an interesting case study in what to do and what not to do when building a franchise from scratch. The NFL's 31st and 32nd teams seem to be headed in very different directions.
'Believe in what you're doing'
"If the first time things go wrong, if you just blow it up and start all over again, you're going to be starting over a lot," said Texans coach Dom Capers, not necessarily referring to the hapless Browns. "You have to have a philosophy, and you have to believe in what you're doing. The greatest challenge is to stick to it when things aren't going the way you want them to go."
Both teams won at least seven games by their third season, though Cleveland fired coach Chris Palmer and hired Butch Davis after the second year. The Browns advanced to the playoffs in their fourth season, which has been the stated goal of the Texans from the very start.
But the long-term stability of the Texans (7-8) seems much more assured than that of the Browns (3-12), who are wheezing to the finish in this unexpectedly miserable season.
Amid speculation that he would be fired, Davis resigned Nov. 30 to put a merciful end to a four-year tenure that included more than his share of hard-luck losses; an array of costly injuries -- 15 Browns players are on the injured list this year; a roster-cleaning salary-cap purge in 2003 and a yearlong quarterback controversy last season.
Worse each week
After getting off to a 3-3 start, Cleveland has dropped nine straight games and seemingly gotten worse with each defeat. The Browns are coming off an unsightly 10-7 loss Sunday on national TV to the Miami Dolphins.
About the only consolation is that, should they lose again, Cleveland will get either the first or second pick in next spring's NFL draft.
"I think once we found we had a lot of injuries and we had to go into our second tier of players, that became difficult for us," said interim coach Terry Robiskie, now 0-4 since replacing Davis. "It has been extremely difficult. I come in and I've got five weeks ... it's extremely hard to try to right the ship that has gone astray."
How to right the ship?
Starting over ... again
Once the season ends, Cleveland will begin interviews for a new general manager and then for a coach. The coach who inherits this mess will find a roster lacking depth and quality, and an organization once again plotting a new course.
The model for rebuilding that franchise could be found in Houston.
The Texans won four games in 2002, five in 2003 and have a chance to finish with eight should they beat Cleveland. Despite grumbling from fans over the slow progress, Capers and the Texans have resisted the urge for drastic change and stayed true to their plan.
They've been rewarded with strong performances in the past two weeks against teams -- Chicago and Jacksonville -- that came into their games still fighting for their playoff lives. Domanick Davis rushed for 245 yards in those games and the Texans extended their streak of not allowing a touchdown to 11 quarters, finally resembling those grinding, blue-collar teams that Capers idolized as an assistant in Pittsburgh.
"You go through a building process, and it makes it that much more rewarding once you finally get there," Capers said. "I like the direction we're headed. I hope as we head into next year, we'll have our best football team.
"When you look around our league, many of the people who have those strong convictions and stick to it get rewarded."
Life in the league cellar
With their history of impatience and chaos, it's no surprise the Browns have fallen far behind the NFL's youngest team in the race for the Super Bowl. But noting how quickly Cleveland plunged into the league cellar, the Texans are wary of celebrating their meager successes too early.
"We're not in a position to overlook anybody," Texans defensive tackle Seth Payne said. "We're 7-8. We're a losing team right now. We all know we have to stay hungry and be very focused to finish 8-8, especially against a team that's going to be as hungry as these guys."