Things are not looking good for the Browns. With only two weeks remaining in the 2021 season, the Browns still have a chance to sneak into the playoffs as AFC North champions. Both of these claims are correct, illustrating how volatile the playoff picture can be in the NFL over the course of an 18-week, 17-game season.
Cleveland’s Week 15 loss to Las Vegas was on a Monday, while their Week 16 loss to Green Bay was on a Saturday. The Browns, who enter Week 17 with a record of 7-8, have used up all their do-overs and will need a lot of help from the football gods to make the playoffs for a second straight year.
It’s hard to believe, but the Browns still have a shot at moving up from the AFC’s 12th spot all the way to the conference’s 4th in only two weeks. This is the scenario, broken down
The NFL’s AFC Playoff Scenario, Including The Browns’ Prospects
The Browns need to win their final two games before they can worry about anything beyond their control. Monday night, Week 17, finds them on the road against the Steelers (7-7-1). In Week 18, they host the Bengals (also 9-6).
In Week 8, the Browns were defeated by the Steelers 15-10 at home. In Week 9, they went on the road and beat the Bengals by a score of 41-16. Close off the season with a pair of identical games, in which they’ll want to improve to 2-0. If all goes according to plan, the Browns will have a 9-8 record.
Second, they need the Bengals to lose out in order to finish with the same record (9-8). As early as Week 18, at home, Cleveland may eliminate half of Cincinnati’s formula. In Week 17, Cincinnati will face the AFC’s top seed, Kansas City, in arguably the conference’s most difficult matchup.
Third, they can’t finish higher than 9-8 unless the second-place Ravens (8-7) lose one of their next two games. That makes sense, since the Ravens will be playing both the No. 3 Rams and the Steelers at home in consecutive weeks (17 and 18). With four straight defeats, Baltimore is also spiralling out of control.
For the fourth spot, the Browns need the third-place Steelers to drop a game, but that’s on their agenda for Week 17.
The Browns have the tiebreaker since they swept the season series against the Bengals if the two teams were to finish the year with identical 9-8 records. In the unlikely event if the Browns, Bengals, and Ravens all end up with identical records, the club with the best record against the other two would be declared the winner. The Browns would have a record of 3-1, while the Bengals and Ravens would each have records of 2-2 and 1-3. The Steelers would be eliminated from playoff contention with another defeat and would end at 8-8-1 at most.
The Browns are essentially competing in a consolation round for the AFC North. With wins over the Steelers and Bengals, and perhaps the Chiefs and Rams (or Steelers), the 2021 version of Kevin Stefanski’s squad would jump from wild card contender to division champion.
The only reason the Browns have a chance to make the playoffs is because of the AFC North competition. They’ve improved their standing in the division more than they have in the conference as a whole, which hurts their wild-card hopes.
A 9-8 record would only improve the Browns’ AFC record to 6-6. The Patriots (9-6), the Chargers (8-7), and the Raiders (9-6) all have wins over them, but they lose the tiebreakers due to their better overall records (8-7). The fifth-ranked Colts (9-6) can’t go lower than a 7-5 conference record.
The Browns’ defence, led by Myles Garrett, has given them a solid foundation for competition, but the team’s success will depend on Baker Mayfield and the offence. Cleveland has never had much success in Pittsburgh, and playing there in prime time only makes things more difficult for the visiting underdog. With Joe Burrow back at quarterback and the Bengals’ offence clicking, the Bengals are playing considerably better than they did in Week 9, when they were blown out 31-0.