Could Johnny Manziel lead the Browns to the playoffs?
1:56 | NFL
Could Johnny Manziel lead the Browns to the playoffs?
Tuesday December 2nd, 2014

With 11 teams owning either eight or nine wins as December arrives -- plus the eventual NFC South winner -- it’s easy to presume this season’s 12-team playoff field is largely in place as the season’s final four weeks begin. But don’t forget about all those 7-5 contenders, even if they are clumped in a very precarious position with the math not in their favor as the postseason push ratchets up to full throttle this month.   

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Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs had it exactly right on Monday; at 7-5, you’re in must-win mode from here on out, with little or no margin for error. But that’s not always a bad thing, is it? Four times already in this still-young century we’ve seen teams scratch their way to Super Bowl titles despite being no better than two games over .500 in December. That honor roll includes:  

-- The 2001 Patriots were 7-5 after 12 games, but already in the midst of a nine-game season-ending winning streak that was capped by that Super Bowl upset of the Rams.

-- The 2005 Steelers were 7-5 and on the cusp of playoff-race elimination, then they won their final eight games to earn that long-awaited fifth ring.  

-- The 2010 Packers were 8-6 in mid-December and on a two-game losing streak, but went on to win their next six games to capture another Lombardi Trophy.  

-- And those stealthy 2011 Giants were a middling 6-6 and seemingly going nowhere after the 13th week of the season, and you know how that ended. With another parade down the Canyon of Heroes. 

This season, there are a whopping seven still-believing teams that will take a 7-5 mark into Week 14, with six of them hailing from the jam-packed AFC, where 12 of the 16 teams are at .500 or better. Of those seven, most are in pretty rough shape, but they’re not dead yet, even though only Miami would qualify (as the AFC’s No. 6 seed) if the playoffs started today.

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It’s an interesting group of on-the-bubble 7-5 contenders. In Baltimore, San Francisco and Pittsburgh, there are three recent Super Bowl teams with first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to make a meaningful late-season run. And then there are four other clubs that haven’t tasted either the playoffs or a postseason victory in forever: Buffalo, Cleveland, Miami and Kansas City. Of that bunch, the Dolphins were the last team to win a playoff game, and that came in 2000.  

Four weeks from now, who might emerge from this pack to make some playoff noise in January? Here’s our assessment of the seven striving 7-5’s, and who might be better or worse off after the close of Week 17:

Miami -- Current position: AFC’s 6th seed -- The Dolphins’ gritty 16-13 comeback road win against the feeble Jets on Monday night was literally a season-saver. Miami would have been toast at 6-6, but the victory vaulted it all the way from the 11th seed in the AFC to the lucky No. 6 spot, where, thanks to the intricacies of the NFL’s three-way tiebreaker rules, they somehow replaced a Chiefs team that soundly beat the Dolphins in South Florida in Week 3. Go figure.

The good news is Miami is starting to break new ground, with five wins in its past seven games, and its first winning mark at the start of December since 2008, when the Dolphins were also 7-5 en route to an 11-5, AFC East-winning season -- their most recent playoff trip. The bad news is, with a home game against fellow 7-5 Baltimore on tap this week, then a trip to top-seeded New England in Week 15, the Dolphins haven’t accomplished anything yet. If they can at least split their next two games, then beat both the Vikings (5-7) and Jets (2-10) at home in Weeks 16-17, Miami should be alive in January. Then again, losing to inferior opponents in December is a trend with which Dolphins fans are familiar.

 -- Projection: In the playoffs at 10-6, as the AFC’s No. 5 seed.

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Kansas City -- Current position: AFC’s 7th seed -- Can a team lose to the calamity known as the 2014 Raiders and still qualify for the playoffs? I checked with the league and am still waiting to hear back on that one. Come to think of it, can a team go without a touchdown pass to a wide receiver all season and still make the playoffs? Taken in tandem, those two “distinctions’’ would seem to eliminate Kansas City from any further postseason consideration.  

In reality, the Chiefs’ fortunes shifted dramatically for the worse in the span of just a few hours in Week 13. At the start of the day, Kansas City was just a home win over struggling Denver away from being 8-4 and tied for first place in the AFC West. By the end of Sunday night, once the Chargers (8-4) had come back dramatically to win 34-33 at Baltimore and the Chiefs lost 29-16 to the Broncos (9-3), Kansas City was all but out of the division race, suddenly looking up at both San Diego and Denver. With tough games at Arizona (9-3) and at Pittsburgh (7-5) still remaining, plus a Week 17 home finale with San Diego, the Chiefs’ playoff chances look like they’re on life support. The streak of K.C. not making the postseason in consecutive years since 1993-94 is a great bet to continue.

-- Projection: 8-8 and misses the playoffs.

Buffalo -- Current position: AFC’s 8th seed -- Just by having a winning record and being in playoff contention, the Bills are already in strange and almost virgin territory by recent Buffalo standards. They haven’t combined those two factors entering December since 2000, the final season of the team’s Wade Phillips coaching era, and the year after their most recent playoff berth. So it’s been a while and there might be the impulse to prematurely feel a little good about themselves. That is what coach Doug Marrone seemed to be pushing back against on Monday when he refused to look past this week’s challenging trip to Denver: “You’re way ahead of me,” he said. “I’m not looking at the last quarter [of the season] right now. I’m just looking at this upcoming game.” 

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I don’t blame Marrone for keeping the blinders on. If the Bills look up right now, they may get dizzy from both their unaccustomed lofty heights, and the fact that Buffalo faces Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady in three of their final four games (as well as Oakland rookie Derek Carr). That’s a tall task for any team, especially since three of those games are on the road. But the Bills’ plight is made even tougher by their poor AFC record (4-5) and head-to-head losses to fellow wild-card contenders San Diego and Kansas City. The win over the Browns on Sunday helped, but for a Bills team that has been hanging around on the fringes of playoff contention all year -- never having a losing month or dropping below .500 -- it’ll be a long and painful December.

-- Projection: 8-8 and misses the playoffs.


San Francisco -- Current position: NFC’s 8th seed -- The playoff picture is bleak in 49ers-ville, but the situation is not impossible if Jim Harbaugh’s club gets some help. What San Francisco absolutely has to have is a collapse by a couple teams ahead of it in the race, be it Dallas, Detroit or even the suddenly vulnerable Arizona Cardinals. If two of those clubs go on a season-ending slide -- and I’d rate the Cowboys as most likely, then the Cardinals and Lions -- the 49ers could survive to make the postseason by winning at least three of their four remaining games. Possibly a 2-2 finish will even get San Francisco to January if the Cowboys went 0-4 or 1-3, because the 49ers win the head-to-head tiebreaker with Dallas on the strength of their Week 1 win in Arlington.  

But with a trip to Seattle, plus home games against San Diego and Arizona still on the schedule, San Francisco’s path to a fourth straight playoff berth is very narrow. The 49ers are just 1-3 in the NFC West, only 3-3 at home, and this is their worst 12-game record since 2010, the final year of the Mike Singletary coaching era. Tellingly, I think, Harbaugh’s 12-game record has actually worsened each year, from 10-2 in 2011, to 8-3-1 in ‘12, to 8-4 in ‘13, and now 7-5. That’s yet another sign that his time in San Francisco is probably at an end.

-- Projection: 9-7 and misses the playoffs.

Baltimore -- Current position: AFC’s 9th seed -- How critical was Week 13 in the AFC North? First-place Cincinnati barely survived at Tampa Bay and stayed as the AFC’s No. 3 seed position, while the Ravens, Steelers and Browns all lost, sliding to a discouraging and desperate 9th, 10th and 11th in the conference. Baltimore had as much pangs of regret as anyone, somehow scoring 33 points at home but still losing to a Chargers team that put 21 fourth-quarter points on the scoreboard. That’s why Suggs correctly noted that the Ravens have officially exhausted their room for error, with the home loss to San Diego negating the good Baltimore did itself with that road win at New Orleans in Week 12.  

At this point of the year in the NFL, your outlook can change dramatically in a week, and that means the Ravens have every reason to believe they might be riding high again if they can go to Miami this week and pull the upset against the 6th-seeded Dolphins. Or barring that, Baltimore might still be playoff-worthy if it goes on a three-game winning streak to close the season, beating Jacksonville at home, Houston on the road, and Cleveland at home -- a feat that sounds manageable enough. With memories of 2012 still fresh in my head, I’m not remotely ready to count the Ravens out.

-- Projection: In the playoffs at 10-6, as the AFC’s 6th seed.   

Pittsburgh -- Current position: AFC’s 10th seed -- Having witnessed the Saints’ dismantling of the Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday -- and pay no mind to that wildly deceiving final score of 35-32 -- it’s hard for me to imagine Mike Tomlin’s club finding a winning sense of consistency and cohesion this late in the season. The Steelers have confounded from Week 1 on this year, blasting the Browns at home in the first half of the opener, then barely hanging on to win in the second half. And so it has gone, with Pittsburgh alternating wins and losses in its first six games, then winning three home games in a row to climb to 6-3, only to drop two of three games since, to the 1-8 Jets and the 4-7 Saints. Seven losses against teams with losing records since 2013 tells you a lot about these Steelers.  

You’d like to think the franchise’s winning pedigree would really help down the stretch, but that luster is starting to fade. Pittsburgh hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2011, hasn’t won a postseason game since beating the Jets in the 2010 AFC title game, and since their 2011 first-round playoff loss to Tim Tebow and Denver in overtime, the Steelers are a mediocre 23-22. This much gives you cause for hope if you’re Pittsburgh: With two games left against the Bengals, it’s still in your hands. Everything from the AFC North title to a wild-card berth is still in play. But realistically that makes this week’s trip to Cincinnati do-or-die time.

-- Projection: 9-7 and misses the playoffs.

Cleveland -- Current position: AFC’s 11th seed -- There’s a part of my brain that logically understands the Browns’ possible quarterback switch from veteran Brian Hoyer to rookie Johnny Manziel, and then there’s the part that wonders how many dreadful Cleveland teams of recent vintage would have killed to have a quarterback capable of leading them to a 7-5 record and December playoff contention? Granted, Hoyer hasn’t played well the past three weeks and seems to be pressing. But what scenario offers the better odds: He rebounds and steadies himself down the stretch as the Browns take their best shot to reach the postseason, or Manziel -- who looked good on one drive against a Bills defense that had already pulled Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams -- catches lightning in a bottle in the first four starts of his NFL career?  

As rough as Hoyer has looked of late, the Browns might be messing with the decent amount of mojo they’ve had this season, in a year that no one had them fighting for a playoff spot to begin with. I’d stick with Hoyer, because I think the what-ifs will hurt even more if Manziel goes out there against the Colts and looks like a rookie quarterback for four quarters, basically ending the Browns’ playoff dreams. I know what else will hurt in Cleveland this year: If it gets to Week 17 with the playoffs still a possibility, and then sees the old Browns (meaning the Ravens) eliminate the new Browns in a Week 17 loss in Baltimore.

-- Projection: 8-8 and misses the playoffs.

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