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Midseason report: Cleveland Browns

CLEVELAND -- The Browns have to be pleased with the way their first half has gone. A team that has had six double-digit-loss seasons in a row enters a key Thursday night game in Cincinnati with a 5-3 record. It's the first time since 2007 the Browns have been over .500 at the halfway point, and it's as many wins as the Browns have had in any of the past six seasons.

New coach Mike Pettine has connected with the team and the fans with his honest approach (yes, it matters). Brian Hoyer has continued to win and play well as the starting quarterback. And the Browns have reason to believe things will be better the second half. The team will gain more knowledge of new offensive and defensive systems with each game, and after the 10th game standout receiver Josh Gordon will be back on the field. There are real reasons to feel good about this season.

MVP: The receiving group was supposed to struggle without Gordon, but this group has held its own largely because of the play of Andrew Hawkins. He was slated as the third wideout when signed, but without Gordon he's had to step into the starting lineup and play more than he ever has. He's responded by leading the team with 39 receptions and 504 yards, and he plays with a toughness that was not completely expected. He's shown more than most thought he had, and he's made the team better in doing so. For that, he beats out Hoyer and linebacker Karlos Dansby as the team's midseason MVP.

Biggest disappointment: Alex Mack went to the Pro Bowl last season, then raised his play this season to a new level. Mack was as good as any center in the league in the first five games. He stepped into the stretch-zone blocking system used by Kyle Shanahan, made the line calls and was the driving force behind a successful early running game. Then he broke his leg at the end of a short run against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The run-game average dropped almost 100 yards per game to 53 since he's been injured. A team should be able to overcome the loss of a center, but in the Browns' case Mack's was a significant loss.

Best moment: Beating Pittsburgh in any season is an achievement. As last season's coach Rob Chudzinski once said, the Steelers treated the Browns like a kid brother. For the Browns to beat the bullies down the turnpike made a city happy. But to do so convincingly, to do so at home, to do so in a game that the Browns controlled from start to finish was a unique moment, one that said more than anything about how this team has played. The turning point of the season was the second half of the opener, when the Browns erased a 24-point halftime deficit in Pittsburgh. The 31-10 win over the Steelers in Week 6 showed the Browns at their best.

Worst moment: Falling flat in Jacksonville. The Browns followed the uplifting Week 6 win over the Steelers with a clunker of an effort against a winless team. That loss does not erase the positives of the first half, but it was a message that even with improvement there was work to do. Every team has bad days, games and plays, but that game was especially bad and deflating.

Key to the second half: Health, the return of Gordon and consistent play from the quarterback, in that order. Injuries at key spots would test the team's depth. If the Browns could be 6-4 when Gordon returns, he could catapult them to a strong finish -- if he has the right attitude. Finally, when the team gets good quarterback play, it's glaringly evident how much it missed it in the past. Hoyer has dealt with the specter of Johnny Manziel to play efficient and smart football, which has been good enough to win. If he continues and the first two keys happen, Browns fans can dream big.