The Cleveland Browns didn't do themselves any favors in the playoff race by losing to the Cincinnati Bengals last week, but remember: while I said our game against the Baltimore Ravens back in Week 9 was a must-win game, I did not feel the same about the Bengals game.
This article will take a look at the current standings, investigating our remaining hopes of winning the AFC North, as well as our hopes of capturing the final wildcard spot in the AFC.
AFC North Standings & Playoff Outlook
The Bengals are on the bye this week, but are in great position to win the AFC North because no matter what the other three teams in the division do this week, they will, at worst, have a two-game lead over everybody. Here is why it is not worth it to look forward to winning the division...at this point in time:
- Bengals' Remaining Schedule:
Cincinnati vs. San Diego
Indianapolis vs. Cincinnati
Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh
Minnesota vs. Cincinnati
Baltimore vs. Cincinnati
- The Bengals don't have the easiest schedule in the world. The Chargers have been a tough time, and although the Colts have been shaky, they own wins over the best teams in the NFL. The Vikings game can be chalked up as a win. With the talent the Bengals have, you would think that in a worst-case scenario, they will get two more wins the rest of the season to finish at 9-7.
- If the Bengals finish at 9-7, the Browns would have to finish the season at 5-1. That is something I wouldn't be willing to bet on, because it means we would have to win two of three at New England, at New York, and at home against Chicago (not to mention we'd have to win our three "easier" games against Pittsburgh and Jacksonville).
- Let's say the Bengals do collapse and finish the season at 8-8. That means they would likely have lost in the final week of the season to the Ravens.
- Ravens' Remaining Schedule:
New York Jets vs. Baltimore
Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore
Minnesota vs. Baltimore
Baltimore vs. Detroit
New England vs. Baltimore
Baltimore vs. Cincinnati
- The Ravens would need to finish the season 4-2 to finish at 8-8. If they beat the Bengals in the final week, they need three other wins. While that is asking a lot given how poorly the Ravens' offense has been, they do have four home games, three of which are in the next three weeks. Let's say they get to 8-8, along with Cleveland.
- The Ravens would have the advantage in a three-way tie, because they would have defeated the Bengals twice and the Browns once, for a combined 3-1 record against them. The Browns' record of 2-2 would be behind them, and the Bengals would be 1-3 behind the Browns.
- If the Steelers some how finish 8-8 with the Browns, we wouldn't have to worry about them overtaking us, because likely, we would be 2-0 against them.
- To summarize, the Bengals have the best chance at winning the division by far. Of the three other teams, the Ravens are in the best shape, simply because they still have a game left with Cincinnati and can go for the season sweep. The division race will be easier to narrow down as each week goes bye. For now, what I said originally still stands: don't count on it.
AFC Wildcard Outlook
Ah, this is where things get interesting. Currently, the Jets are the 6th seed in the AFC, but their 5-5 record is only one game ahead of Cleveland. There are a ton of teams battling for that 6th seed in the AFC, and Cleveland is one of them. Here is a listing of the chaotic mess:
- My projection is that the final wildcard team in the AFC will finish with a record of 8-8.
- That means the Browns need to finish the season 4-2.
- I am deeming the next two games against the Steelers and the Jaguars as must-win games, way more so than I did the Bengals game. We've seen the Steelers play poorly this year, particularly on the road, and the Jaguars are usually an automatic win. Both games are at home.
- Those two wins would get us to 6-6. That means we need to finish the season at 2-2. We have a tough two-game stretch against the Patriots (on the road) and the Bears (at home). I'm projecting us to lose both of those games, although an upset win would be fantastic. That puts us at 6-8.
- Our final two games come on the road: at New York (Jets), and at Pittsburgh. It's tough to win on the road, but the way I see it, we'll need to beat the Jets regardless of the situation to prevent them from finishing at better than 8-8. So, let's assume that our optimistic scenario comes true, and we finish at 8-8.
- We do not want the Ravens to finish at 8-8. If they do, chances are, they would own a tiebreaker over us, whether it be a better conference record or an obscure strength of victory tiebreaker. We should typically root for the Ravens to lose the rest of the season, particularly when they face Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. They have games against the Jets and Dolphins, which has complicated wildcard situations in themselves.
- We want the Jets to finish at 8-8 -- no better or no worse. There is a good chance that the Dolphins will also finish at 8-8, as well as the Chargers. The Dolphins are a dangerous team because they already beat Cleveland and San Diego.
- If the Jets were 7-9, the Dolphins would just win a head-to-head tiebreaker over us. If the Jets are 8-8, though, they would have a better division record than Miami, and thus, would eliminate Miami's tiebreakers against us. In a three-way tie between the Jets, Browns, and Chargers, the Browns have the advantage of a better conference record (Jets and Chargers are each currently at 2-5, while the Browns are 3-4).
- What about the Titans, Raiders, and Bills? I think their schedules are too tough to get back in it, and with the scenarios I ran, if they finish tied with the Browns, odds are that Cleveland would win obscure tiebreakers over each of them.
- To summarize, we want to root against the Ravens the most, followed by the Dolphins. If both of those teams tank, it'd be nice if the Jets just tanked too. However, if Miami stays competitive, we'd need the Jets to also stay somewhat competitive so they can prevent the Dolphins from getting a head-to-head win over us.
Sounds simple, right? The truth is that we still have a long way to go. On Thursday, I will post an article about the Week 12 games that impact Cleveland's playoff chances, and what scenarios we should be rooting for this week.
If you want to mess around with your own playoff scenarios, go ahead: ESPN's Playoff Machine is now live.