Here’s what the Cleveland Browns need to stay in the AFC playoff hunt

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The Browns did their part. Saturday’s primetime victory, quite obviously, was the most essential part of any remaining long-desired NFL playoff dreams for the city of Cleveland.

If the Browns had lost – which, let’s be real, we were all dreading would happen in some gut-wrenching fashion per usual – then they would have been officially eliminated from playoff contention. The Denver Broncos, at 6-8, are not officially eliminated yet. Just like the 5-8 Cincinnati Bengals, these teams are hanging around by the thinnest of threads. With any one more strike against them, they’ll soon be cast aside.

But now standing tall at 6-7-1, the Cleveland Browns’ somewhat legitimate (?!) playoff hopes get to live at least another day. Entering the game, FiveThirtyEight gave the Browns less than 1 percent chances of making the playoffs. That mark oh-so-slightly nudged up to 2 percent after the conclusion of the thrilling game at Mile High. It’s a real number, now! Both Denver and Cincinnati are in that less than 1 percent no man’s land.

With Cleveland football finished for Week 15 … what should Northeast Ohio fans be focusing on for their relaxing Sunday ahead? Below, I’ll dive into each team in front of the Browns and how things need to shake out from here. This will break out all of the remaining items the Browns still need in order to have a shot.

For context on where this all stands, four AFC playoff spots have already been clinched or practically clinched. Los Angeles (11-3) booked a playoff berth with their Thursday win over previously-secured Kansas City (11-3).1 With Saturday afternoon’s victory, Houston (10-4) essentially booked a ticket. And New England (9-4) is all but assured of a 10th consecutive AFC East division crown, too.

That still leaves a huge blob of teams (including your Browns!) fighting for the two remaining AFC playoff spots. I’ll go through them each in order of those FiveThirtyEight playoffs odds. I guess it technically is worth reiterating, but let the record state the Browns clearly need to win Week 16 versus Cincinnati and Week 17 at Baltimore for any of this to even matter anyway. But let’s try and have some fun scoreboard-watching while we still can.

Miami Dolphins (7-6) – 21 percent odds

  • Week 15 @ Minnesota Vikings (6-6-1)
  • Week 16 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9)
  • Week 17 @ Buffalo Bills (4-9)

Firstly… how in the world is this team 7-6? It baffles the mind. They have a bottom-five offense and bottom-five defense. They’ve lost several of their top playmakers. And yet, thanks to Week 14’s miraculous lateral-palooza to shock New England, they’re in the hunt. And because of their incredibly favorable Week 16-17 schedule, this is one team I’m oddly nervous about.

The Vikings-Dolphins game on Sunday is kinda like a do-or-die game, sorta like the Browns-Broncos game. There’s only one available playoff spot in the NFC behind the Los Angeles Rams (11-2), New Orleans (11-2), Chicago (9-4), Dallas (8-5) and Seattle (8-5). Because of that, I’d expect the Vikings to plausibly try and take control of the No. 6 spot. Maybe? Regardless, the Dolphins could potentially cake-walk through the next two games. If they beat the Vikings somehow, then the Browns are pretty much done.

Indianapolis Colts (7-6) – 28 percent odds

  • Week 15 vs. Dallas Cowboys (8-5)
  • Week 16 vs. New York Giants (5-8)
  • Week 17 @ Tennessee Titans (7-6)

The single-most intriguing game remaining is that Week 17 showdown between marginal contenders Indianapolis and Tennessee. Because the two teams play each other, the winner of that game needs to lose their other remaining two games. The Browns cannot overtake a 9-7 team due to the tie. So, if any of these teams win two out of the remaining three, then that’s a huge body blow.

The Colts are slight favorites over red-hot Dallas on Sunday. The Giants don’t look any better than the Bengals in terms of any real shot at playoff contention. So obviously, given how hot Andrew Luck & Co. have been, this is a dangerous, dangerous team. But the advantage here is that touch match-up against the Cowboys and having to go on the road in Week 17.

Tennessee Titans (7-6) – 34 percent odds

  • Week 15 @ New York Giants (5-8)
  • Week 16 vs. Washington Redskins (6-7) on Saturday
  • Week 17 vs. Indianapolis Colts (7-6)

All that talk about Indianapolis leads us to Tennessee. They also have two games coming against the NFC East, but the one I’m most concerned about is Week 16. The Redskins have completely fallen apart since the loss of Alex Smith. In an NFL season where, with three more games left, all NFL teams have more wins than the Browns did in 2016 AND 2017…2 the Redskins might currently be playing as the league’s worst team. That’s really bad news for the Browns.

The Colts may be favored in that Week 17 match-up, despite being on the road. But there’s a very real possibility the Titans could win their next two games and make that final game ultimately pretty meaningless anyway. If you’re trying to map out the scenarios where the Browns sneak into a wild card spot, then the focus in Week 15 needs to be on the Titans-Giants and Dolphins-Vikings games, first.

Baltimore Ravens (7-6) – 53 percent odds

  • Week 15 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-8)
  • Week 16 @ Los Angeles Chargers (11-3) on Saturday
  • Week 17 vs. Cleveland Browns (6-7-1)

Now, here’s where things get more ambitious. In an alternate reality where everything suddenly turns up Cleveland… yes, the AFC North could be up for grabs. Per usual, that means Baltimore and Pittsburgh can’t pick up a pivotal ninth victory. Baltimore winning on Sunday isn’t the end of the world. That’s mostly because they’ll be significant underdogs in the next Saturday night primetime spot before the Browns get a chance to do the dirty work themselves.

The Ravens, of course, are favored by 7.5 points in Week 15 and will certainly be favored at home in Week 17, too. That puts them dangerously close to that 9-win line.

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5-1) – 63 percent odds

  • Week 15 vs. New England Patriots (9-4)
  • Week 16 @ New Orleans Saints (11-2)
  • Week 17 vs. Cincinnati Bengals (5-8)

The Steelers have entertainingly collapsed of late. They’ve lost three straight to the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders. Before that, they nearly (and probably should have) lost to the Jaguars, too. That means their Super Bowl contender status is significantly on pause until they can actually come closer to grabbing a playoff berth, firstly. Sunday’s always-pivotal game against New England is the first big test. If they fail that… well things don’t get any easier from there with a Week 16 road date in the Bayou.

Thankfully for Pittsburgh, Week 17 eases up with downtrodden Cincinnati. So, let’s play some make-believe for a moment. Let’s say the Browns win out and finish 8-7-1. And the Steelers lose their next two before closing out with a victory to also finish 8-7-1. As is well documented, the Browns would lose such a tiebreaker to the Steelers.

Let’s go hog-wild and say somehow, someway the Ravens also end up with a tie against the Buccaneers or Chargers. Then, they could also finish 8-7-1 and we’d have a bonkers three-way tie! The problem is the Ravens would be eliminated immediately on head-to-head, which would revert the system back to a two-team tiebreaker. The Browns having a Week 1 tie rather than win would come back to bite them.

From the three-team tiebreaking procedure:
Note: If two clubs remain tied after third or other clubs are eliminated during any step, tie breaker reverts to step 1 of the two-club format

And, there you have it. The Browns are in the dang playoff race on Sunday, Dec. 16. The Browns only have two games remaining and they’re in the playoff race. The Browns are trending up and they’re in the playoff race. These are words that haven’t been uttered for the better part of the last decade. While a lot of hoops still have to be jumped through to get there– this breakdown should help you understand all the various games to watch and the whacko things that still could take place.

  1. If you haven’t seen it yet, the Chargers Twitter account had an incredible post-game video. []
  2. It’s pretty weird that the worst team already is 3-10, right? Oakland, Arizona and San Francisco are in a three-way tie for that spot right now. It seems there is a ton more bottom-level parity than usual this season. This must be what happens when the Browns are finally moderately decent. []