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NFL Playoffs: An Updated Look at the Cleveland Browns' Chances

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

When the Cleveland Browns defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers two weeks ago to improve to 3-8, I did a post on the team's playoff chances. At the time, it was tongue-in-cheek, of course, because the team's chances at making the postseason were extremely slim. Two weeks later, something interesting has happened: the Browns making the playoffs isn't so absurd after all.

If you're not convinced, then maybe this one statement will tell you why there is at least a hint of optimism: with three games to go, the Browns are only two games out of a wildcard spot.

The Browns have won three games in a row to improve their record to 5-8. Their convincing 30-7 on Sunday against the Chiefs was a telling sign of a team that continues to get better. It doesn't matter that the Chiefs are the worst team in the league; the Browns haven't had a win by that margin in a long time.

Miraculously, almost everything that the Browns needed to happen happened on Sunday. They beat the Chiefs. The Chargers destroyed the Steelers on the road in Ben Roethlisberger's return game. The Cowboys rallied from down two possessions late to upset the Bengals on the road. Had the Steelers and Bengals both won those games, Cleveland would've been eliminated from playoff contention.

To make things even sweeter, the other serious playoff contender (by virtue of their soft schedule), the Buffalo Bills, lost within the final minute against the Rams to fall to 5-8. The Dolphins also lost to the 49ers to stay at 5-8.

Where do things stand the rest of the season regarding the Browns' playoff chances? Here are the "teams in the hunt" for the sixth seed in the AFC heading into Week 15:


Let's take a look at what the Browns need to happen from each of the contending teams the rest of the way:

Pittsburgh Steelers: In order for the Browns to have a chance, the most amount of wins that the contending teams can have is eight. Therefore, the Steelers can't do better than 1-2 over the next three games. Here is how their schedule looks:

Week 15: Pittsburgh at Dallas
Week 16: Cincinnati at Pittsburgh
Week 17: Cleveland at Pittsburgh

The ideal scenario, which I'll explain a little bit more below, is for the Cowboys to beat the Steelers, but beat the Bengals when they get back home. That would set up the potential "win-and-in" scenario for Week 17 against the Browns. The Browns would own a tiebreaker over the Steelers by virtue of sweeping them for the season.

Cincinnati Bengals: Once again, the Browns need the Bengals to not do better than 1-2 over the next three games. Cleveland split with them on the season, and if a tiebreaker scenario arises, Cleveland will own a better division record than them. Here is how their schedule looks:

Week 15: Cincinnati at Philadelphia
Week 16: Cincinnati at Pittsburgh
Week 17: Baltimore at Cincinnati

It's a good thing that the Eagles got a nice confidence booster with a win today, but I'm still not counting on the Bengals losing to such a bad team like that. With a win at Philly, the Bengals would already have eight wins. That's why I'd prefer that the Steelers are the team that wins that Week 16 matchup. Then, in Week 17, it's actually good that the Ravens have lost a couple of games -- that game might have more meaning in terms of them trying to secure a better seed. If the Ravens are motivated, the Bengals will finish at 8-8.

New York Jets: This is the team that jumps out at you and you say, "come on, do we really have to take them seriously?" Based on the inconsistency they've demonstrated this year, the answer is "no." If they win out, though, the Browns would have no chance, and their schedule is actually pretty soft-looking. Therefore, we still have to consider them as a threat.

Week 15: New York at Tennessee
Week 16: San Diego at New York
Week 17: New York at Buffalo

All three of those teams have losing records. As long as the Jets don't go 3-0, the Browns don't have to worry about them; the Browns would own a better conference record. Since the Bills are still somewhat of a threat, it'd be great if the Jets lost one of their next two games, and then took out the Bills in the final week.

Buffalo Bills: Despite having the same record as Cleveland and being a game behind the Jets, the Bills actually appear to be more of a threat at disrupting the Browns' playoff hopes. If the Jets and Browns both finish at 8-8, the Browns always get in. If the Bills and the Browns finish at 8-8 (and assuming that the Chargers don't also finish at 8-8), then Buffalo will own a tiebreaker over Cleveland since they beat us earlier in the season. Here is how their schedule looks:

Week 15: Seattle at Buffalo
Week 16: Buffalo at Miami
Week 17: New York at Buffalo

The schedule isn't super easy, but it's not entirely out of the question that they run the table. The Seahawks could be missing their cornerbacks for the game due to suspension, and Seattle isn't as good on the road. Again, though, with Buffalo being inconsistent, hopefully they drop one of these three games so they aren't even a problem.

Cleveland Browns: And then we have the Browns, who need to run the table to finish the year at 8-8. Here is how their schedule looks:

Week 15: Washington at Cleveland
Week 16: Cleveland at Denver
Week 17: Cleveland at Pittsburgh

I was not happy to see Robert Griffin III suffer an injury, but it looks like he might be able to play against Cleveland this week. I imagine his mobility could be affected, though, which certainly plays to Cleveland's advantage. The Redskins' defense is terrible, and if Griffin isn't in a good flow due to injury, or if they have to sit him in favor of Kirk Cousins this week, a hot Cleveland team can pull out the win.

The tough game is, of course, against Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Week 16. It doesn't matter if it's on offense, defense, or special teams; the Broncos play lights out across the board. Historically, Manning struggles against the Browns more than any other team, though, and maybe something weird will happen like a snow game. If the Browns pull that one out, it sets up the Week 17 bout against Pittsburgh.

What do you think, Browns fans? Are you starting to believe that this type of scenario could actually come true?

As always, try out your own playoff scenarios using ESPN's Playoff Machine.