Last week you may have read that the Browns’ game at Tennessee was a "must win" for head coach Mike Pettine and company. It’s an idea that is a lot easier to immediately reflect on when you’re on the winning side, as is the case for Browns fans this week.
But what if Cleveland had lost that razor close game against the Titans? Sitting down 28-3 before the first half was even over, what if the Browns hadn’t set an all-time record for the biggest comeback on the road in NFL history?
Brian Hoyer’s and Travis Benjamin’s jerseys certainly wouldn’t be sitting in the Pro Football Hall of Fame right now. Cleveland wouldn’t have a 2-2 record, just a single game back from the AFC North division leader.
What if a single play or a single call had gone in the other direction?
The current one game deficit in the standings would have gone in the other direction too.
As the "pass-fail" mentality continues to prevail, it would have been another notch in the "fail" category.
All of this seemingly goes without saying.
So what made it a must win?
Was it the fact that the Browns won? No. That couldn’t possibly be the case with games so often being affirmatively declared must wins well before the outcome is known.
And yet, this early in the season, the moment any team loses their must-win game in a particular week, that’s the moment it ceases being a must win.
This fact doesn’t occur because it’s no longer possible to change the outcome of the game at that point. Instead rather, the moment any team loses this early is the same moment we realize that game never was a real must win.
For the team, it’s time to review the tape and begin preparing for the next one.
Fans and media go through similar stages. We breakdown and reflect on the game gone by, then begin to preview the one upcoming.
If the "must win" existed, at least based on the context in which it is used as a modern cliché, sports writers covering those teams would be left with nothing else to talk about from that point on, unless they're ready to preview the next draft class in Week 5. Ehhh, let’s not give that notion any encouragement.
The truth is, that must win is a myth.
Must wins do exist, but not in that form.
In a more abstract concept, the must win exists as an attitude that every player and coach in the NFL ought to maintain about every single game. However, it’s one they have to abandon each and every week as they apply it to the next game, which takes obvious priority over the previous one.
Without doing so, you run the risk of both overlooking the current opponent and/or being unable to put past struggles behind you in order to improve.
A black and white absolute truth exists with this mentality until the very moment you have to apply it to something else. Every game is a must win until it’s time for the next one. This is one of the many irrational aspects to sports, and yet it should make perfect sense to sports players and sports fans.
Within the more rational realm, we apply different reasoning. Must wins can exist there, but those too, are unlike the current way the cliché is being used today.
With a goal in mind for teams during the regular season, which is to make the playoffs, we then apply simple mathematics to determine whether any game is a must win or not: Is a win required, mathematically, to keep the goal of making the playoffs attainable?
Of course, based on the NFL’s standings, their standard for making the playoffs, and the 16-game season, it’s absolutely far too early to declare any game a must win, mathematically speaking.
The NFL Playoff’s "magic number," and it’s ugly cousin, the "tragic number," are still several months away from being truly approachable.
Even the league-worst 0-5 Jacksonville Jaguars are still mathematically within reach of the playoffs. Granted, they are no longer in control of their own destiny. Meaning even if they won out, as highly unlikely as that is, they’d still require specific outcomes from games they're not participating in.
Interestingly enough, the Browns are the last ranked team in the current playoff standings that still technically control their own destiny. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still far too early for Cleveland to talk about the playoffs.
Every single bit of focus needs to be on beating the Pittsburgh Steelers at home this Sunday.
The game is a must win, but not the kind you’d traditionally think of it as.