Ranking the Best, Worst Potential Playoff Matchups for the Cleveland Browns

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistDecember 2, 2020

Ranking the Best, Worst Potential Playoff Matchups for the Cleveland Browns

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    At 8-3, the Cleveland Browns look headed to the playoffs.

    That's a good embodiment of just how wild the 2020 NFL season has been, considering Cleveland hasn't qualified for the postseason since 2002, which was its only appearance since the franchise rejoined the league in 1999. 

    That means it's time to think about their potential playoff matchups—anywhere from Wild Card Weekend to the AFC Championship Game.

    Maybe the record, which has them second in the AFC North and holding the fifth seed, is fool's gold. After all, the Browns trounced the weak NFC East and bad teams like Jacksonville. They also lost to playoff contenders (hence the minus-21 point differential and 5-3 record in the conference). But anything can happen in the postseason.

    Some notable good and downright awful possible matchups exist for the Browns based on recent history, schematics and opponent performance. Let's rank those in order of difficulty, starting with the easiest. 

6. Indianapolis Colts

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Speaking of the Colts, they look to be one of the easier matchups available. 

    In Week 5, Cleveland beat an inferior Indianapolis team, holding Philip Rivers to 243 passing yards, forcing two interceptions and limiting Colts runners to 3.8 yards per carry. 

    Conversely, Mayfield threw a pair of touchdowns and interceptions while the offense didn't have Chubb because of a knee injury. Add the league's best running back to the equation, and things will likely swing more drastically than that 32-23 outcome. 

    For a postseason matchup, the Browns would have even more film on Rivers in his new surroundings. Plus, the 38-year-old veteran hasn't exactly reduced the turnovers—not with his nine interceptions (tied for seventh-most). It's a quarterback duel Mayfield has won and can win again, especially after doing so without his best offensive player.

5. Buffalo Bills

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    How about a fun slugfest between teams with rising young quarterbacks and similar intentions on the field? 

    Onlookers got that in Week 10 last year when Buffalo visited Cleveland for a 19-16 Browns win. Mayfield threw two touchdowns and Chubb rumbled for 116 yards on a 5.8 average, while Bills quarterback Josh Allen ran for a pair of touchdowns. 

    Fast-forward to now, and both teams look better than a season ago. Allen had a few MVP whispers and has his team at 8-3, plus 6-2 in the conference and undefeated in the AFC East. He's completed 68.8 percent of his passes, which include 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions, while the defense has posted 30 sacks. 

    From a schematic outlook though, just like last year, this is a good matchup for the Browns. Buffalo has allowed the eighth-most rushing yards in the league. The Bills want to play ball control and don't have a quarterback who has routinely dominated Cleveland, which indicates it could be another Chubb-controlled game in which Mayfield doesn't have to do all the heavy lifting.

4. Miami Dolphins

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    The Miami Dolphins are a rebuilding team and surprising playoff contender, as head coach Brian Flores rights the ship in his second year at the helm.

    But they're still a good matchup for the Browns, considering the 7-4 Dolphins boast a bottom-10 rush defense that permits 129.9 yards per game. Call it something Nick Chubb, owner of 719 rushing yards and six scores on a 6.3 average, could exploit with ease. 

    That's especially beneficial since standout rookie passer Tua Tagovailoa isn't guaranteed to be ready, as he's dealing with a thumb injury. That would leave 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, who'll be exposed against a Myles Garrett-led defense that has drummed up 27 sacks. 

    Fitzpatrick's thrown just 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions, and provided the Browns could avoid turnovers and allowing big plays, the matchup is favorable. 

3. Tennessee Titans

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Maybe file this one under the obvious column: The Tennessee Titans are a horrific matchup for almost any team. 

    That's best explained by their 8-3 record, never mind their trip to last season's conference title game. Running back Derrick Henry has brutalized the opposition again, this time for 1,257 yards and 12 touchdowns on a 4.9 per-carry average. He's crushed playoff hopefuls and pretenders equally, including the 7-4 Indianapolis Colts in Week 12, running for 178 yards and three scores. 

    Not that Henry does it all on his own. Ryan Tannehill has been uber-efficient again, throwing 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions. 

    That isn't to say the Titans are invulnerable. Chubb can give any team fits, and Tennessee's effectiveness has been sporadic at times, as seen in losses to Cincinnati and Indianapolis. But if Henry pulls the Titans in front and milks the clock, it will boost the chances Baker Mayfield (and his paltry 7.2 yards per attempt) will make mistakes through the air against a defense with 11 interceptions. 

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The Browns probably don't want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs.

    Taking down a division opponent in the postseason sounds amazing, sure. But the AFC North rival Steelers are 10-0 and on the hunt for a perfect season. Even worse from a Cleveland perspective, the Browns have beaten the Steelers just six times since 2000. 

    Their Week 6 game wasn't one of those wins, either. Pittsburgh hit cruise control in a 38-7 victory, running for three scores as a team while Ben Roethlisberger only needed to attempt 22 passes, one of those going for a touchdown. Mayfield threw two interceptions on just 18 attempts, including a pick-six, while the Steelers ground out the clock. 

    The Browns didn't have Chubb for that one, but the franchise has done little over the years to stop Big Ben and the Steelers. And while it feels like anything can happen in the playoffs, this is one of those matchups with enough historical data to suggest otherwise. 

1. Kansas City Chiefs

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    The only team to make the Kansas City Chiefs look even halfway beatable this year was the Las Vegas Raiders. The AFC West foe is familiar with lining up across from Patrick Mahomes twice per year and took down K.C. 40-32 in Week 5. 

    Still, the Chiefs are 10-1 with a plus-110 point differential. Mahomes has completed 68.8 percent of his passes, tossing 30 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a breakout star at running back, and Tyreek Hill has already scored 13 touchdowns in 11 games. Even the Chiefs defense has only let up 21.6 points per game, a top-six mark. 

    That's not to say this matchup would be hopeless for Cleveland. Maybe Garrett can coerce Mahomes into mistakes or at least cut drives short. But even then, that would require Mayfield to zip past a quietly strong K.C. defense. 

    And in all likelihood, this would devolve into a shootout where one team has an undeniable advantage under center. In the playoffs, that seems to matter more than anything else.