It's hard to say you "won" during your bye week in the NFL, but that's exactly what one could say about the Cleveland Browns last week. This past Sunday, when the Browns were off, I stated that there were six games that impacted the team's playoff hopes, whether it be for the top spot in the AFC North, or the final wildcard spot in the AFC. Somehow, all six games went in Cleveland's favor.
- The Ravens beat the Bengals, bumping Cleveland to just 1.5 games back of the division lead. That might sound like a lot still, but Cleveland faces Cincinnati this Sunday, and a sweep would give the Browns the all-important tiebreaker at the end of the season, should they both finish with the same record.
Another good part about the game? Even though Baltimore kept their playoff hopes marginally alive, neither the Bengals nor the Ravens looked good on Sunday. It was an ugly football game, and Cincinnati has now lost two straight games. The Browns' locker room is well aware of what the loss for Cincinnati meant, as evidenced by this tweet from safety T.J. Ward while the game was in overtime on Sunday:
- Heading into this past weekend, the Browns sat at four wins. The final wildcard spot belonged to the Jets, a team that had five wins and was also on the bye. Tennessee, San Diego, and Miami all had chances to move up to five wins on the season; the fewer teams ahead of Cleveland, the better.
- Despite the fact that the Titans and the Dolphins were facing the 0-8 Jaguars and the 0-8 Buccaneers, respectively, they both lost and now have the same record as Cleveland. The Chargers also lost their second game in a row, giving them the same record as Cleveland. We could have had four teams ahead of us in the wildcard race after Week 10. Instead, it's still just one team -- the Jets, who Cleveland faces later in the season and could possibly win a tiebreaker over.
- The Raiders and the Bills each sat at three wins heading into Week 10, but could have created more competition for the Browns by winning. They were each facing teams that had struggled mightily this season -- the Giants and the Steelers. Oakland and Buffalo both lost, keeping them behind Cleveland.
In short, what does all of this means? Technically, Cleveland controls their own destiny -- if they beat the Bengals, they can play week-to-week and hope to stay on pace with the Bengals record-wise.
By virtue of this past weekend unfolding the way it did, it also means that this Sunday's game against Cincinnati is not a must-win game when it comes to playoff hopes. Let's say the Browns lose a tough game to a Bengals team that is 4-0 at home this year, and that the Jets win. That would put the Jets two games ahead of Cleveland, but the Browns have two easier-looking games to follow (Pittsburgh and Jacksonville).
If the Browns could cut the wildcard lead back to one game during that stretch (say the Jets lose a game), then a realistic scenario exists where the Week 16 match between the two teams could go a long way in determining who the final wildcard team is in the AFC.
Later this week, I'll discuss all of the games in Week 11 and who Browns fans should be rooting for in order to make Cleveland's path to the playoffs more likely.