Hidden in the dark hills of his second Browns season were three straight plays on which Peyton Hillis lost yards with the season opener on the line.


Suddenly, the season finale is at hand, and the big running back is looking for a ray of light at the crossroads.

Hidden in the dark hills of his second Browns season were three straight plays on which Peyton Hillis lost yards with the season opener on the line.

Suddenly, the season finale is at hand, and the big running back is looking for a ray of light at the crossroads.

In no time -- after the Pittsburgh game -- Peyton Hillis will be a free agent. It seems eons ago since No. 40 was enjoying his newfound fame.

It was fun while it lasted. He provided comic relief to the drudgery of the NFL lockout with a video in which he danced to the theme of "Walker Texas Ranger." His sideways kick steps looked as if they would be hard on the hamstrings, but he smiled and stepped as lively as if he had been the headliner in the Moscow Ballet.

The invincible man jokes associated with the star of the "Walker" TV series became popular among Browns fans. They subbed their favorite running back for Chuck Norris.

"Ghosts sit around the campfire and tell Peyton Hillis stories."

"Peyton Hillis has a grizzly bear rug in his room. The bear isn¹t dead. It¹s just afraid to move."

"Peyton Hillis cuts through a hot knife with butter."

Life happened fast.

Boom. Hillis became the Browns' brightest 2010 star. Boom. He beat out Aaron Rodgers and then Michael Vick for the cover of "Madden 2012." Boom. He was the face of the Browns' 2011 season-ticket campaign.

The beginning of the end was the fourth quarter of the season opener. The Browns were sitting on a 17-13 lead over the Bengals and had had a first down near midfield halfway through the fourth quarter. Head coach Pat Shurmur put the game in Hillis' hands.

Give to Hillis. Boom. Loss of 1. Dump pass to Hillis. Boom. Loss of 4. Give to Hillis. Boom. Loss of 5.

Shortly after a bad punt, A.J. Green got loose for touchdown pass.

Boom -- 0-1.

There was a new joke later in September: "Peyton Hillis misses a game with a sore throat."

Before long, the Hillis story wasn't fun any more. The feeling seeped into the soul of the season.

The season can't be saved. Maybe Hillis' situation can be. He finally had a decent game last week at Arizona. One little scene even left the impression Hillis and Shurmur are attempting to bond.

Hillis had room to break off maybe a 15- or 20-yard gain, but he slipped while making his cut. On his way past Shurmur on the sideline, Hillis made a gesture and an apologetic remark. Shurmur made a playful swipe with his hand over Hillis' head. "Air noogies," someone suggested to Hillis.

"Air noogies?" Hillis said. He remembered it as more of "a playful smirk and a pat on the butt."

The bonding issue will be a big one. How well does Hillis fit in with his teammates? With his coaches? With the fans? If the answers check out in a way that makes the brass care to talk new contract, what might be the dollars? How much do the words he uttered Wednesday count?: "To tell you the truth, I love being a Cleveland Brown."

Heading into Saturday¹s game, Hillis seemed intent on hitting the offseason with a flourish. "What two better games to do it than against Baltimore and Pittsburgh?" he said.

The home finale is against the Steelers. He could certainly regain some friends if he punishes Pittsburgh.

Hillis warmed up to Browns fans gradually in 2010 home games. First, he ran for 35 yards against the Chiefs (4.4 per carry), followed that up with 102 yards against the Bengals (3.8), caught four passes for 49 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta, then really got busy with 184 yards against New England (6.3).

Summing up those four home games, he ran 61 times for 349 yards (5.7 average) and caught 12 passes for 119 yards. He scored five touchdowns.

All this year, Hillis has played just three times in Browns Stadium. In those games, he has run 39 times for 148 yards (3.8). He has made it to five road games in 2011, including his 26-carry, 99-yard teaser at Arizona last Sunday.

He has made a lot of people scratch their heads. Who is this guy? Is he real? That¹s the $25 million question.

Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckert and the men who will provide the answers aren¹t giving many clues -- as if they can be 100 percent sure themselves.

NOW THAT¹S COLD

When you're hot, you're hot. When you're cold, you're the Browns after Thanksgiving.

The Browns went into the Baltimore game knowing they would not surpass the five-win mark for the ninth time in 13 expansion-era seasons. In those seasons of five wins or less, their record in December and January has been 8-30. The "glory days" of the expansion era have been seasons of 6-10, 7-9, 9-7 and 10-6. In those campaigns, the record in December and January has been 9-13.

NORTH RUNNING BEHIND

Even in a very mediocre year for AFC running prowess, the Browns are well in arrears of their division rivals. A look at the season rushing averages and ranks of the teams going into this weekend's games:

-- No. 16 Baltimore, 115.2
-- No. 17 Pittsburgh, 114.5
-- No. 19 Cincinnati, 107.7
-- No. 30, Browns, 95.9

LOOKING UP AT FLACCO

Pat Shurmur says of his top two quarterbacks: "Colt (McCoy) and Seneca (Wallace) are very similar in stature and very similar in terms of their game." McCoy is listed at 6-foot-1. Wallace is listed at 5-foot-11.

Baltimore is carrying only two quarterbacks on its roster. They are not similar in stature. Starter Joe Flacco stands 6-foot-6. Backup Tyrod Taylor, a rookie sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech, is listed at 6-1.

An inch separates McCoy from Drew Brees. In fact, it's McCoy¹s inch. At 6-foot-1, the Cleveland kid is an inch taller than the Saints' sensation.

A second degree of separation covers a country mile. Brees is 11-for-14 in passing for more than 300 yards in 2011. McCoy is 1-for-12.

EXTRA POINTS

-- When it comes to hits, Cleveland rocks. According to NFL.com, former Cleveland St. Joseph High School standout London Fletcher of the Redskins led the league with 146 tackles heading into this weekend¹s games. Cleveland linebacker D'Qwell Jackson was second with 132. Fletcher, 36, is a former John Carroll teammate of Josh McDaniels. He is 11 months older than McDaniels, the offensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams.

-- Pat Shurmur says running back Armond Smith has "quietly caught my eye." Smith, perhaps the fastest man taking part in the Browns' daily workouts, has spent most of the year on the practice squad.

-- The Browns have faced seven of the league's top eight defenses, based on yards allowed per game. The list includes No. 1 Pittsburgh, No. 2 Houston, No. 3 Baltimore, No. 4 San Francisco, No. 5 Jacksonville, No. 6 Cincinnati and No. 8 Seattle. They have averaged 273.7 yards in those eight games, two against the Bengals. They have averaged 322.5 yards against the other seven opponents.  

-- This is just third time in their history that the Browns will have closed against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. It happened last year, when they fell 20-10 to the Ravens and 41-9 to the Steelers. It happened in reverse order in 2005, when they got hammered by Pittsburgh on Christmas Eve 41-0, then upset the Ravens 20-16.