Though the Cleveland Browns have a 4-7 record, their playoff hopes aren't yet dashed. The fact that there are so many AFC teams with similar records means that, as improbable as it may sound, the Browns could actually reach the postseason. Granted, they'll need to win out and will require some help the form of multiple losses from other teams in the hunt, but weirder things have happened.
Right now, it doesn't look like the Browns' destiny this season is to take the football field in January, no matter how mathematically possible it is at the moment. After a 3-2 start to the season, the Browns have won only one game in their last five. Though they may get a respite from losing this week, when they host the two-win Jacksonville Jaguars, the remainder of their schedule isn't a pleasant one.
After the Jaguars this Sunday, three of the Browns' final four games are on the road, starting in Week 14 at the New England Patriots. They host the Chicago Bears in Week 15 before a two-game road trip, first taking on the New York Jets before closing their season at the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The truth is, at least three of these games are winnable for the Browns despite how brutal they look on paper. A strong end to the season would be a welcomed bookend to their good start. The Browns could reasonably end the year with a 7-9 or 8-8 record after five straight seasons with either four or five wins. That's a foundation to build upon and a sign of progress.
|2.||New England Patriots||8-3|
|5.||Kansas City Chiefs||9-2|
at 4-7, the Browns are the current AFC 12th seed
Cleveland took a relatively conservative approach to its latest rebuild in the 2013 offseason, focusing mostly on shoring up the defensive side of the ball under new coordinator Ray Horton. Clearly, offense will be the priority in the next offseason.
The Browns need to improve their run game, likely by pairing Dion Lewis with a rookie drafted in the middle to later rounds plus the ever-present Chris Ogbonnaya. A quarterback is also likely on Cleveland's wish list; veteran Jason Campbell and the injured Brian Hoyer are going to remain on the roster, but Brandon Weeden is not likely part of the Browns' plans going forward.
An addition or two at receiver will be necessary, while the Browns also need to spend some money in the spring to keep center Alex Mack, who is an unrestricted free agent in 2014.
There are good years ahead for the Browns as long as the front office and coaching staff remain stable. But right now, the Browns need to take care of business on the football field.
It's not about hypothetical draft positioning in April or the quarterbacks who may or may not be available when they make their first of two first-round picks. It's about proving that this most recent regime change has the capability of being the team's last for a long time. Jobs are only safe with wins, so it's remiss to just write off the Browns' season with five games left to play and hope for something better next year. Something better is still possible, now.
A win over Jacksonville Sunday will be necessary, however. The Patriots, who lead the AFC East, aren't going to bend at home to the Browns, whether it's Weeden or Campbell under center. The Bears are ripe for an upset, especially playing in Cleveland with a defense fundamentally incapable of stopping the run, but quarterback Jay Cutler could return to action by then, which would make things more difficult for the Browns.
The Jets can both run the ball and stop the run well, but quarterback Geno Smith is a rookie, and Horton's defense should give him problems. He's had zero touchdowns to seven interceptions in his last four games and has been sacked 12 times in that span. Though on the road, the Browns are an all-around better team than the Jets, rushing offense notwithstanding.
Do you think the Browns have a realistic shot at the AFC's sixth playoff spot?
That leaves only the Steelers, who are currently 5-7 after Thursday's loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Like Cleveland, the Steelers are mathematically alive in the AFC Wild Card race. They have a relatively difficult schedule ahead, including the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 15 and the Green Bay Packers in Week 16, possibly with Aaron Rodgers under center.
The Steelers are a mistake-prone shell of their former Super Bowl-winning selves. In the games between now and Week 17, they could have nothing to really fight for when the Browns come to town. If, at the same time, the Browns do, that at least gives them a mental edge in this historically tough road contest.
Though there are other teams vying for that sixth AFC playoff berth, the Browns need to look at that sixth seed as something that can realistically be theirs. They must approach these final games as must-win play-ins for that sixth seed. It's easy to look at the the Browns and their four wins and revert to the comfort of "there's always next year."
However, this year isn't over. The turmoil in the AFC at present keeps the postseason window open for the Browns at least through this Sunday, just as long as they defeat the Jaguars.