If the Cleveland Browns are going to make the playoffs this year, it's going to require Jacoby Brissett to have the best season of his career and the defense led by Myles Garrett to carry this team not unlike some of the Houston Texans teams of the 2010's. The fact the Browns don't play in the AFC South and the conference is loaded will require not only a Herculean effort by the Browns, but benefiting from a remarkable amount of fortune as well.
The Texans went to the playoffs in the 2010's four times before Deshaun Watson was drafted in 2017. Those teams were quarterbacked by journeymen including Matt Schaub, T.J. Yates, Ryan Mallett and former Browns Brock Osweiler and Brian Hoyer. Even Brandon Weeden played in two games during the 2015 season.
Many are tempted to look at the Browns roster, which is talented and believe this team should make the playoffs as a result. One of the reasons the Texans were able to make the postseason was their division was consistently awful. All four times the Texans went to the playoffs, they won the division. In 2015 and 2016, that required just a 9-7 record.
A division crown is a daunting feat bordering on impossible for the Browns to achieve as the Cincinnati Bengals are coming off a trip to the Super Bowl and the Baltimore Ravens who were cursed by injuries last year. The Pittsburgh Steelers might be the worst team on paper entering the year, but they haven't finished with a losing record in 15 years.
Somehow, the Browns will need to fare well within the division, winning at least four of those matchups. The Browns defense stifled the Bengals on the road in 2021, but they also got a great game out of Baker Mayfield. The defense was also impressive against the Ravens in both matchups, but they lost the first one because the offense couldn't capitalize. They won the second, but Tyler Huntley came into the game for the Ravens.
That leaves the Steelers. The Browns lost both matchups, scoring a combined 29 points between the two contests. The second loss was especially dispiriting as Mayfield looked completely helpless and the Steelers were able to slow down the Browns running game. Meanwhile, Najee Harris ran for a total of 291 yards against the Browns, almost a quarter of his season total.
The Browns are banking on improvement on their defensive interior, but all three of their division opponents invested resources to bolster the middle of their offensive lines. At the moment at least, the Steelers aren't reaping the benefits while the Bengals and Ravens, two potent offenses, look stronger than last year.
In 2017, Jacoby Brissett took the helm of the Colts when Andrew Luck unexpectedly retired. The Colts qualified for the wildcard that year with a 9-7 record. They went 5-1 in the AFC South and still needed tie breakers over the Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers to get into the postseason.
Brissett's numbers that year were pedestrian to put it kindly. He protected the ball with an interception rate of just 1.3 percent. However, he completed just 58.8 percent of his passes averaging 6.6 yards per attempt with a touchdown rate of 2.8 percent.
Torn labrum and all, Mayfield threw far more interceptions at a ghastly rate of 3.1 percent, but he also completed more passes further down the field that more often scored touchdowns. Mayfield averaged 215 yards per game compared to 196.1 by Brissett in 2017.
The Colts averaged 16.4 points per game in 2017, third from the bottom. The 0-16 Browns averaged 14.6 that season. Last year's Browns scored 20.5 per contest.
Protecting the ball is important and the fact Brissett doesn't jeopardize the ball can be helpful, but he needs to play at a higher level than he has at any point in his career just for the Browns have a chance. He'll be doing that with Amari Cooper, David Njoku, Harrison Bryant and a room full of receivers auditioning for roles on next year's team.
Contrasted against last year's team, the Browns need to do more with less against a more difficult schedule. Their best path forward is to somehow scratch and claw their way to a 4-0 September. Those are all winnable games and the Browns have no room for error.
After that, the Browns enter a death march for the remaining seven Brissett games, which includes the Chargers, the New England Patriots, on the road against the Ravens and hosting the Bengals before their bye week. They then come out to play the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills on the road and then host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
0-7 is real possibility over that stretch. If they can squeeze out two wins, that would significantly bolster their chances to make the postseason.
Assuming Deshaun Watson does everything he's supposed to do, the Browns will get him back against the Houston Texans on the road, which might seem like it should be an easy win, but could be the most hostile environment the Browns will play in this season.
If there's good news, it's that Watson would be available for three of the Browns divisional games. However, it's foolhardy to assume that Watson will step onto the field and immediately be the superstar talent that he showcased as a member of the Texans. The Browns will clearly be better with Watson than without, but will it be enough to rally them out of a hole at a point of the season where the team might need to be perfect?
Myles Garrett has aspired to be the defensive player of the year since he entered the league. The Browns may need that from him just to squeak into the postseason. He needs to have the same type of impact he had in 2020, going on a run of creating turnovers for a month straight. Garrett was on an absolute tear that year until he contracted COVID-19, not only missing time, but then struggling with his lung capacity for the remainder of the year.
The secondary is going to need to Grant Delpit to break out and for the group to stay healthy, something they've yet to achieve in the NFL. Denzel Ward misses about a month per season alone.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah looked the part of a star as a rookie and the Browns are going to need more from him in year two. They need someone else from the linebacker group to raise their game, so the Browns don't have an obvious vulnerability when they play nickel.
The defensive tackle position enters the season with significant pressure to perform. Jordan Elliott transformed his body this offseason and looks the part. Elliott, Taven Bryan and Tommy Togiai will need to play well enough that opponents aren't able to just hammer them until they eventually give way.
Even if everything goes right, the Browns might still fall short. They could have an incredible team that fights to the last breath and inspires a community in the process, but this is the path the organization chose. In acquiring Deshaun Watson, they knew a lost season was a real possibility. They deemed the risk worth it and it might be in the end. The Browns could win the Super Bowl from in the next five years.
In 2022, the Browns must defy history in order to find their way to the postseason. Should they find their way into the tournament, anything could happen.