The murky situation in the AFC North is only compounded by a similar murkiness in the AFC as a whole. A whole slew of teams are 4-6, 4-7 or 5-5 through the first 11 weeks of the season, leaving the sixth playoff seed in the conference open for the taking for any of them.
As such, the opportunity exists for the Cleveland Browns to make their way into the playoffs. They don't have to simply serve as spoilers for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the only divisional team they face in the remainder of the season (twice, as it were) or for the New York Jets, who are presently at 5-5 and the owners of that sixth AFC playoff berth.
Of course, this will require wins—as well as a few well-timed losses by the other teams in the AFC. The Browns don't have to run the table to get the sixth seed in the playoffs, but they also don't entirely control their own destiny. However, the first step into being back into the postseason picture does involve defeating the Steelers in Cleveland this Sunday.
The Steelers earned their fourth win of the season in Week 11 by dispatching the Detroit Lions, 37-27. But it didn't seem, at first, like they'd come away with a victory. The Steelers gave up 379 yards of total offense to the Lions in the first half, including 327 yards passing to Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. However, the Steelers gave up only 72 yards to the Lions in the second half, while Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger ended the day with four touchdowns, no interceptions and one sack.
While the Browns offense isn't likely capable of putting up nearly 400 yards of offense in 30 minutes this week, they can certainly limit Roethlisberger's effectiveness and put together a hard-fought, close win at home over their oldest rivals. It all starts with making the Steelers offense one-dimensional, which shouldn't be all that difficult.
To do this, the Browns need to stop the run. With the Steelers ranking 29th in the league in average rushing yards per game, at 76.5, and the Browns defense ranking eighth in rushing yards allowed, at 99, it should be little trouble to shut down the Steelers' run game. Then, the Browns can focus on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and getting him to make mistakes.
The Browns defense hasn't had much trouble getting to opposing quarterbacks, with 31 total sacks so far this season. With the Steelers offensive line again being shuffled regularly thanks both to injuries and poor performance, the Browns will have many opportunities to bring pressure to Roethlisberger.
While Roethlisberger may have top-10 accuracy when under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he's also thrown six touchdowns to six interceptions while pressured. He's also been sacked 36 times on the year. If the Browns can get to him, they'll be able to keep Pittsburgh's points to a minimum.
If they can't, their good secondary, led by cornerbacks Joe Haden and Buster Skrine, and safeties T.J. Ward and Tashuan Gipson should be able to handle the Steelers' receiving corps—they just need to be on the lookout for Steelers receiver Jerricho Cotchery, Roethlisberger's latest safety valve, who has seven touchdowns in 10 games.
Cleveland's defense is ranked fourth against the pass, allowing just 207.5 yards per game, which means they should know how to handle what Roethlisberger and Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley have planned for Sunday.
They just need to keep the Steelers out of the red zone—the Browns are the worst in the league at allowing touchdowns on opponents' red zone trips, giving up six points on 67.86 percent of them. In their favor, at least, is how poor the Steelers are at getting touchdowns in the red zone. They do so just 42.42 percent of the time, ranking them 31st in the league.
Controlling the Steelers this Sunday, however, is just the beginning of the Browns' push for a Wild Card playoff berth. They'll need a little help from other teams on the cusp of the playoff hunt. Presently, there are six AFC teams ahead of the Browns—the Jets, the Miami Dolphins, the Oakland Raiders, the Tennessee Titans, the Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens.
In week 12, the Ravens face the Jets. Neither win is good for Cleveland's chances, but as long as they defeat the Steelers, then it is better that the Jets lose than the Ravens.
The Raiders and Titans also face off in Week 12, the result of which won't really change the AFC playoff picture too much, while Miami hosts the red-hot Carolina Panthers. A loss there pushes the Dolphins down into the mire of what could be five 5-6 AFC teams after the week has wrapped.
As long as Cleveland is one of them, things are still looking relatively good.
*Only upcoming opponents with a winning record currently
If that is the case, the situation improves in Week 13. The Steelers take on the Ravens in Baltimore on Thanksgiving, while the Raiders go to Dallas to face the Cowboys earlier in the day. The Titans face the Indianapolis Colts, the AFC South leaders, while the Dolphins take on the Jets. The Browns, meanwhile, host the presently one-win Jacksonville Jaguars.
With so many of the players in the AFC postseason drama set to face off in the coming weeks, the numbers game could play out in the Browns' favor. A defeat of the Jets in Week 16 and a sweep of the Steelers in Week 17 could secure them the final Wild Card slot.
Most of the contenders for the spot take each other on in the final six weeks of the season, which works in the Browns' favor. The Browns need to come up positively in the tiebreak situation, all while accumulating as many wins as they can—and just a glance at their remaining schedule shows just how possible this is.
The Browns cannot look past this week's contest against the Steelers all the way to a hypothetical Week 18 in which they take the field rather than watch from home as spectators.
However, they should keep in mind that a path to the playoffs exist. It might be winding and convoluted, but until they are confirmed to be eliminated from the postseason, there is still much to fight for.