Cleveland Browns' Josh Gordon catches a pass during practice at the Cleveland Browns training facility Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014 in Berea, Ohio. The Browns get a welcomed jolt of offensive firepower as Pro Bowl wide receiver Gordon practices for the first time since his 10-game NFL suspension for drug violations ended. (AP/Photo, The Plain Dealer, Chuck Crow) NO SALES

THIS WEEK’S STORYLINE: The return of Browns receiver Josh Gordon from suspension could be the key to determining whether Cleveland punches its postseason ticket

Those familiar with the various levels of the Cleveland Browns’ decades-long battle with ineptness are probably still struggling with the idea that this team is still contending in late November.

Maybe they’ll eventually be exposed as frauds. Maybe last week’s loss to the Houston Texans is foreshadowing the Browns’ eventual meltdown. Maybe this is all to make Cleveland experience a new level of heartbreak.

But maybe this team is for real, and maybe Josh Gordon’s return will lift the Browns to new heights.

Somehow, without a legitimate No. 1 receiver, Cleveland has gotten off to a 6-4 start and is mere percentage points out of first place in the AFC North. And despite throwing to a cast of other guys, quarterback Brian Hoyer ranks 11th in the NFL with 2,542 passing yards, just 107 behind New England’s Tom Brady.

Can Gordon, who caught 87 passes for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns last season and was activated by the team Saturday, serve as the final piece of the puzzle when he returns this week against the Atlanta Falcons? He says his plan is to tear the league up.

If he can do that, then Cleveland might have a shot to end its run of futility and do some damage in the North. If he can’t, then it might be another long winter.

Nick Underhill

NICK’S PICKS: Underhill’s top five teams in the NFL (this week)

1. Patriots (8-2)

Is Jonas Gray for real? It’s almost unfair that this team has managed to unearth another weapon.

2. Cardinals (9-1)

It seems like things should fall apart, but they’re proof that building around defense still works.

3. PACKERS (7-3)

They’ve won their past two games against Chicago and Philadelphia by a combined score of 108-34.

4. BRONCOS (7-3)

Did they peak too early? They’ve lost two of their past three games and face Miami before playing Kansas City.

5. COWBOYS (7-3)

Defense seems to get a takeaway each week. Tony Romo’s back injury does not appear to be impacting him much.

This Week’s Games

TAMPA BAY (2-8) at CHICAGO (4-6)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: Bears by 6

BRIEFLY: Game marks return to Soldier Field for Lovie Smith, who in nine years led Bears to one Super Bowl. Smith was fired after 10-win season in 2012. ... Buccaneers are last in NFC South but just two games off division lead. ... QB Josh McCown posted first win as Bucs starter last week. He appeared in eight games with five starts for Chicago last season and had 109 rating, 13 touchdowns, one interception.

NICK’S PICK: Bears 24, Buccaneers 20

DETROIT (7-3) at NEW ENGLAND (8-2)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: Patriots by 7

BRIEFLY: Game matches NFL’s highest-scoring team with opponent allowing fewest points. Patriots have scored 32.2 points per game, while Lions have given up average of 15.6. ... Lions’ last three wins have been by one, one and four points. ... QB Matthew Stafford surpassed 20,000 yards passing for career in 71st game last Sunday, fastest to that total in NFL history.

NICK’S PICK: Patriots 28, Lions 20


WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: Colts by 14

BRIEFLY: Jaguars have lost four straight to Colts. ... WR Allen Hurns needs one TD catch to break franchise’s single-season rookie record. Hurns, Matt Jones and Justin Blackmon are tied at five. ... RB Denard Robinson needs one 100-yard game to become first Jaguars player since Maurice Jones-Drew in 2011 with three 100-yard games in one season.

NICK’S PICK: Colts 27, Jaguars 17

CLEVELAND (6-4) at ATLANTA (4-6)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

Line: Falcons by 3

BRIEFLY: Despite record, Browns are tied for last in AFC North. Despite record, Falcons are tied for first in NFC South. ... Browns WR Josh Gordon returns after serving 10-game suspension for violating NFL’s drug policy. Gordon led league with 1,646 yards receiving in just 14 games last season.

NICK’S PICK: Browns 24, Falcons 21

CINCINNATI (6-3-1) at HOUSTON (5-5)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: Texans by 11/2

BRIEFLY: Bengals QB Andy Dalton, who grew up in suburban Houston, is 0-3 all-time against Texans, including playoffs. ... Dalton threw for 220 yards with three touchdowns for career-high 143.9 quarterback rating last week. ... Rookie second-round pick Jeremy Hill of LSU had 152 yards rushing last week for his second game with at least 150 yards this season. He leads rookies with 556 yards rushing.

NICK’S PICK: Texans 20, Bengals 17

GREEN BAY (7-3) at MINNESOTA (4-6)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: Packers by 8

BRIEFLY: Vikings have only won one of last 10 matchups with Packers, in 2012 regular-season finale. They tied once last year. ... TCF Bank Stadium will be site of first outdoor game between rivals in Minnesota since Nov. 29, 1981, at Metropolitan Stadium. They played once before on University of Minnesota campus, on Oct. 5, 1969 at Memorial Stadium.

NICK’S PICK: Packers 28, Vikings 17


WHEN: Noon Sunday

Line: Eagles by 11

BRIEFLY: Titans have won last four meetings after Eagles won first six when Titans were Houston Oilers. ... Former LSU and current Titans QB Zach Mettenberger’s passer rating of 86.2 is highest among rookies. ... Rookie RB Bishop Sankey has run for at least 50 yards in four of past five games.

NICK’S PICK: Eagles 28, Titans 20

ST. LOUIS (4-6) at SAN DIEGO (6-4)

WHEN: 3:05 p.m. Sunday

Line: Chargers by 5

BRIEFLY: 34-year-old Rams QB Shaun Hill makes second straight start after turnover-free outing in upset of Denver. ... Three of Rams’ four victories have been against teams that reached conference championship games last year: Seattle, San Francisco, Denver. ... San Diego has beaten only one team with winning record, Seattle.

NICK’S PICK: Chargers 24, Rams 17

ARIZONA (9-1) at SEATTLE (6-4)

WHEN: 3:05 p.m. Sunday

Line: Seahawks by 7

BRIEFLY: Cardinals have best record in NFL, are 9-1 for second time in history and have six-game win streak. Cardinals haven’t won seven straight since 1974. ... Cardinals snapped Seahawks’ 14-game home win streak last December. ... QB Drew Stanton threw for career-high 306 yards last week vs. Lions. ... RB Andre Ellington needs 20 total yards to become second Cardinals RB to have 1,000 total yards in each of first two seasons.

NICK’S PICK: Cardinals 20, Seahawks 17


WHEN: 3:25 p.m. Sunday

Line: 49ers by 9

BRIEFLY: 49ers have won last three meetings. ... Redskins make first trip to San Francisco since Dec. 28, 2008, a 27-24 49ers win at Candlestick Park in which K Joe Nedney kicked winning 39-yard field goal as time expired. ... 49ers’ Frank Gore (54) and Redskins’ Alfred Morris (42) have two longest active streaks for consecutive starts by NFL running backs.

NICK’S PICK: 49ers 23, Redskins 17

MIAMI (6-4) AT DENVER (7-3)

WHEN: 3:25 p.m. Sunday

Line: Broncos by 61/2

BRIEFLY: Last time these teams met, Tim Tebow’s late heroics rallied Broncos to win in overtime. ... Dolphins have won four of five and Broncos have lost two of three. ... KR Jarvis Landry of LSU leads NFL rookies with 31.2-yard average per catch. ... Dolphins’ 30 sacks are second in AFC. ... Broncos are coming off game in which Peyton Manning threw 54 passes and handed off just nine times.

NICK’S PICK: Broncos 31, Dolphins 20


WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Line: Cowboys by 31/2

BRIEFLY: Cowboys have won three straight in series after stretch of six losses in eight games. ... Giants have five-game losing streak, their second straight season to drop at least five straight. ... Cowboys (51) and Giants (43) have most Sunday night appearances. Giants are most frequent Dallas opponent, nine times on Sunday night. ... Cowboys QB Tony Romo had three TDs and 135.7 rating against Giants in Week 7 win. It’s one of three games with rating of at least 135 for Romo this season. ... RB DeMarco Murray is first in NFL history with at least 100 yards rushing in nine of first 10 games. He leads NFL with 1,233 yards. ... WR Dez Bryant had two TDs receiving against Jacksonville and leads NFL with 42 touchdowns since 2011.

NICK’S PICK: Cowboys 27, Giants 20

NEW YORK JETS (2-8) Vs. BUFFALO (5-5) IN Detroit

WHEN: 6 p.m. Monday

Line: Buffalo by 21/2

BRIEFLY: Game will be played Monday night in Detroit because of severe winter storm that hit western New York. ... Jets haven’t played in two weeks, while Bills were off last weekend after playing Thursday night game. ... Jets had lost eight straight before beating Steelers. ... QB Michael Vick to make third straight start since replacing Geno Smith in first quarter against Bills.

NICK’S PICK: Bills 17, Jets 14

LAST WEEK: 9-4; SEASON: 86-49