CLEVELAND (AP) -- During a career spanning nearly 14 seasons -- most of them extremely painful -- with the Browns, kicker Phil Dawson has only experienced a handful of home games in December that have meant something.
The list is short.
But Sunday's game against Washington is on it, and not just because it may be Dawson's last in Cleveland.
The Browns, given up for dead after an 0-5 start, are playing for more than pride and paychecks. With three straight wins, they've got faint playoff hopes and need a win over the Redskins to keep them alive. Cleveland has made the playoffs just once since 1999, when Dawson was unproven and had a full head of hair.
"Usually by now all the talk is about the stuff that goes on off the field," Dawson said, "but the conversation has revolved around winning a football game in December. That's refreshing."
The Redskins, too, are fighting for the postseason and pray rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III will be able to lead them there.
The dynamic RG3, with a blend of speed and charisma rarely seen in the NFL, sustained a sprained right knee last week when he was tackled after a 13-yard scramble in the closing minutes of regulation against Baltimore. The image of Griffin's leg whipping back grotesquely as he was brought down by Ravens tackle Haloti Ngata was replayed hundreds of times this week, leading to speculation that he would miss at least one game and maybe more.
But Griffin practiced all week and Redskins coach Mike Shanahan will use the uncertainty about his young star's playing status to keep the Browns guessing.
However, they've already made their predictions.
"We fully anticipate that he'll play," Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said. "We're preparing for RG3 to be out there."
Cleveland hasn't faced anyone of Griffin's caliber, but that's because there are few quarterbacks who can do what last year's Heisman Trophy winner can accomplish with the ball in his hands. Griffin can run, throw and throw on the run. Possessing cat-like quickness, he's nearly impossible to contain. And even when he appears to be cornered, he somehow escapes.
The Browns' biggest challenge on defense will be slowing down the Redskins' read-option offense, where rookie running back Alfred Morris lines up next to Griffin in the shotgun. After taking the snap, Griffin eyes the defensive end and then either gives the ball to his back or keeps it himself. And if Griffin turns the corner, it's tough to run him down.
If Griffin does get loose, the Browns (5-8) know the only way to slow him down is to make him pay.
"If you let him run and don't hit him, then he's going to continue to run without fear," safety T.J. Ward said. "You've got to let him know that there's going to be consequences for leaving the pocket and trying to run down field."
With Griffin leading the charge, the Redskins (7-6) are off and running like they haven't in years.
They've won four straight games -- all since their bye week -- for the first time since 2008, and a win on Sunday would put Washington two games over .500 for the first time after 14 games since the Redskins went 9-7 in 2007.
Griffin, for one, said he came back rededicated after Washington's week off. Veteran linebacker London Fletcher said the break may have reinvigorated the Redskins, who knocked off NFC East rivals Philadelphia, Dallas and the New York Giants before beating the Ravens in overtime last week.
"The results will say yes, so it's hard to say it hasn't made a difference," said Fletcher, a 15-year veteran and Cleveland native who will be playing his first game in his hometown. "Maybe we were a tired group at that point and time, with us having our bye so late in the year, having so many road games so early in the season, so it possibly could have been that we needed to regroup a little bit, refresh, get away and get refocused on what we needed to do."
The Browns have had a similar spurt.
They're 3-1 since their bye week with the only loss in overtime at Dallas. Only time will tell if the late-season turnaround will be enough to save coach Pat Shurmur, whose future rests in the hands of new owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner. Shurmur could strengthen his case to keep his job and return for a third season with another win or two.
And who knows, if the Browns can finish with three straight wins, there's a scenario where they could make the playoffs.
"Anything can happen," said defensive end Juqua Parker. "When I was in Philly, we were going through the same thing. We had to have all types of things to happen, but they all happened and we made it to the playoffs."
There's been a buzz around Cleveland in recent weeks as the Browns have stacked win upon win upon win. Dawson, who surpassed 300 career field goals last week, has sensed the city's cautious joy. As the only active player from Cleveland's 1999 expansion team, and the lone one from the 2002 playoff squad, he would love one more shot at the postseason.
Unable to work out a long-term contract with the team, he has been given the franchise tag the past two years. If they tagged him again, the Browns would have to pay him the average salary of the top five players in the league -- a number that could be $15 million.
Dawson, who wants to break Lou Groza's mark as the team's career scoring leader, doesn't know where he'll play next year, but he'll have one more visit to Cleveland's chilly lakefront.
"There will be a moment or two when I think about that," he said. "But we don't know what's going to happen in the future. I'm just going go down there and help this team win."
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