While we all adjust to life in a world where the Jets are unstoppable, but only against legitimate playoff-caliber teams jostling for a postseason berth late in the season, let us take comfort in a fact that endures amid the most upside-down aspects of society today.
The Browns were always going to make this more difficult than they needed to. This, of course, being the effort to snap the NFL’s longest ongoing postseason drought. And yes, Sunday’s loss to the Jets was under exceptional circumstances. The team’s entire passing game was sidelined due to COVID-19 close contacts, leaving Baker Mayfield’s passing options beyond his tight end and running backs nonexistent. It was also the kind of moment that transcends all of the team’s newfound competence and success.
What was displayed Sunday was the very type of football that Cleveland had worked so hard to get away from. Late-game fumbles, red zone turnovers, coverage sacks and a shuffling running game were all ailments Kevin Stefanski was brought in to rectify, and, in almost every conceivable way, he had over the course of 10 wins in the season’s first 14 games. But it seems that if you are the Browns for as long as the Browns have been the Browns, some of this is buried deep; a knee-jerk reaction toward chaos somehow embedded in everyone’s fine motor skills.
So where does this leave the now 10–5 Browns with one week to go?
First, some math: The Browns need to defeat the 12–3 Steelers at home Sunday in order to reach the postseason. Before Sunday’s game, statistical analysis site FiveThirtyEight had their percentage chance of reaching the postseason floating in the 90s. It now stands at just 54%. The other at-large teams hunting for an AFC playoff bid, the Ravens, Colts and Dolphins, have 93%, 83% and 74% chances, respectively. While the Steelers are certainly not the unstoppable force they appeared to be earlier this season, they have already throttled the Browns once this year and appear incredibly resilient when pressed by top-flight competition. Their win over Indianapolis on Sunday, which at one point seemed to be foreshadowing a Steelers-Browns matchup to decide the AFC North, saw a hobbled, aging Ben Roethlisberger chuck a vintage 49 attempts and log nearly 350 passing yards and three touchdowns without a whiff of a rushing game. Three of their four top pass rushers were consistently under the NFL’s average QB separation, meaning Philip Rivers was almost constantly tortured in the pocket.
It would be difficult to imagine the Steelers, who have already weathered so many inane setbacks this season and still managed to stay a step behind the conference-leading Chiefs, would simply lay down against the Browns next week because their place in the postseason has already been solidified.
Also worth considering: The Browns can lose to the Steelers and still reach the playoffs, but that would involve the Colts losing to the Jaguars and the Titans losing to the Texans.
This is a strange moment for the Browns, who could manage to walk out of this season with double-digit wins for just the second time since their 1999 reincarnation but have nothing to show for it (like they did, similarly, back in 2007 when they went 10–6 and missed the playoffs). Given that not-too-distant past, missing 2020’s newly expanded playoff field might leave a chill—a lingering doubt that the Browns we believe to be new Browns may not actually be new Browns at all. That doesn’t seem likely, given all that Stefanski has done this year to uproot their prior shortcomings. The Paul DePodesta regime feels methodical. This season did not feel like it happened by accident. The Browns can’t control that the AFC happened to have a glut of 10-win teams this season.
But a loss to the 1–13 Jets on Sunday certainly makes you think, doesn’t it?