The Cleveland Browns have the distinction of living in the best division in the NFL, the AFC North. Every team has a winning record. Before this past Sunday’s game, all four clubs were listed winning a playoff position. Baltimore was the frontrunner to win the division, and then the Pittsburgh Steelers, Browns, and Cincinnati Bengals were slotted at the number five through seven seeds.
As jumbled as the division is, Sunday’s games provided only a hint of clarity. Cleveland’s signature comeback win over the Ravens, another Steelers win over an average team, and the Bengals’ unexpected loss to an up-and-coming Houston Texans scrambled the playoff picture a bit.
Playoff picture? Browns?
If you go back and examine Cleveland’s schedule, the 6-3-0 Browns coulda, woulda, shoulda actually be 8-1-0. Name a penalty, turnover, or mistake, and Cleveland performed this against the Steelers in Week 2 in the 26-22 gift to Pittsburgh. 17 of their points were because of mistakes. We all know how and why the Browns gave away the Seattle Seahawks game.
But now that Cleveland has taken down the mighty Ravens, the rest of the league is seeing the possibility of the Browns not only making the playoffs but going deep. Currently, the franchise has an 81% of being involved in the post-season.
Here are some keys to that happening.
Convert touchdowns instead of field goals
How wonderful is it to have a great kicker this season? Dustin Hopkins should be the leading contender for the Browns’ Offensive Player of the Year. Each week he is a candidate for the league’s Special Teams Player of the Week and has won this distinction twice.
Hopkins is tied with the most field goal attempts with 27 and is Number 1 in field goals made with 24.
But here’s the rub. Hopkins is an excellent kicker. We all know this. But the reason he is going onto the field to attempt yet another scoring opportunity is because the Browns offense can’t get into the end zone.
How many times has Cleveland driven down inside the Red Zone only to trot out Hopkins to salvage the drive? Against the Ravens, it happened three times. That is a dozen points that could not be added to the scoreboard in a close game.
Oh sure, there are games where Cleveland will have multiple touchdowns with the offense - against defensive-starved clubs such as Arizona, Cincinnati, or Indianapolis.
Cleveland is 20th in the league in scoring with 19 total offensive touchdowns. They have just eight passing touchdowns, good enough for a #26 ranking but are near the top in rushing touchdowns. The defense has contributed two touchdowns.
The Browns have scored 214 points with a 23.7 points-per-game average. Hopkins has accounted for 86 of the total scoring. That equates to 40.19% of Cleveland’s offensive putout.
Yes, we are all happy that Hopkins is having his first Pro Bowl season. But this offense has got to find a way to get into the end zone.
The reasons are obvious. All the playoff-caliber teams do. A club cannot be known for having their kicker contribute the bulk of the scoring and expect to get anywhere.
The only place to have the star of the offense as the kicker is in a Disney movie.
There was a time when Watson was a Top-5 quarterback when he played for the Texans. He was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, then made three consecutive Pro Bowls and passed for almost 5,000 yards in his final season.
Last season after serving an 11-game suspension, he returned for six games and appeared to be a sub-par player. In the early stages of this season, he was either hurt or played poorly. At one point, every media outlet ran a story about how bad he looked and that his scrambling abilities were gone.
After dealing with a shoulder injury, he returned against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 9 and had a very good game. Of course, it helps when the club you are attempting to defeat has only one win. But he played well and there were glimpses of his old self. He hit WR Amari Cooper in stride on several long passes and the offense committed zero turnovers.
Then against the Ravens, he orchestrated a drive with just 4:55 on the clock and down by one point. Not only did his offense convert several first downs to retain possession, but he had a 16-yard scramble that enabled Cleveland to get into field goal range. More importantly, the Browns were able to waste the clock so that they would either win the game with no time left or not allow Baltimore’s offense another chance to regain the lead if the Browns were to go ahead with minimal time left.
Are there any signs that Watson is back? Is he beginning to show flashes of those Pro Bowl years?
Yes, there are signs. However, he is not playing consistently on a higher plateau just yet. In the Ravens game, he tossed two passes into the turf early in the game to open receivers. He scrambled for decent gains, but looks like he lumbers down the field instead of his once willy shifty running style that would fool defenders.
Today’s version of Watson isn’t juking anyone.
While Lamar Jackson remains the pinnacle of the division and is shifty himself, he still has passing issues and will often miss his targets when closely guarded. He hits open receivers with ease. But it is the contested throws that he misses randomly.
And what is an amazing stat, is that Jackson has problems beating Watson going back to their college days in the ACC.
Watson’s health is key. If he continues to improve on his play each week and make the throws that everyone knows he is capable of making, this offense will improve.
And with Cleveland’s gigantic defensive effort each week, realistically, all Watson has to do is manage the game and not be saddled with being the game’s savior each week.
Is Deshaun Watson on the cusp of regaining his Top-5 quarterback status? Not even close. Not Top-5 or Top-10 and just may be included in the Top-15 after the victory over the Ravens. But each week, he is improving. Each week the offense moves the ball better. Each week Watson is throwing deep and hitting receivers deep.
Watson passed for 4,165 yards in 2018, 3,852 in 2019, and 4,823 in 2020. He no longer has those 300 and 400-yard games. In fact, his highest number of yards while with Cleveland was this year when he threw for 289 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions in the 27-3 beatdown of the Tennessee Titans in Week 3. Last year he tossed for 276 yards in his second game back in the 23-10 loss to the Bengals.
Not the monster numbers he had while with the Texans. But you know what? It doesn’t have to be. Cleveland remains a good running team, and Lord knows what this club would be like if they still had Nick Chubb in the lineup each week.
In his NFL career, Watson has nine fourth-quarter comebacks and 11 game-winning drives. All but one was with Houston. But now he has a signature comeback with the Browns. That’s a start.
The Browns defeated the Ravens without two starting offensive tackles in Jack Conklin and Jed Wills, backup tackle Ty Nsekhe, their All-World starting running back Chubb, rookie tackle Dawand Jones who has started and played extremely well, two backup linebackers in Jordan Kunaszyk and Jacob Phillips, their best backup guard with Michael Dunn, starting kick returner in Jakeem Grant, and key starting cornerback in Pro Bowler Denzel Ward plus his backup rookie Cam Mitchell, and S Juan Thornhill ruled out.
The Browns are going to have to remain healthy to have any chance of not only making the playoffs but winning in the post-season tournament.
It all begins with Watson. He missed four games this year with a rotator cuff issue. After the win over Baltimore, he was seen in a walking boot from an ankle injury he sustained late in the first half when he was tackled by former Browns Jadeveon Clowney. The boot was explained as just for precautionary reasons and shouldn’t be a big worry.
Watson was noticeably limping for the remainder of the game but continued to play.
Ward left in the first quarter of the Baltimore game with an apparent head injury when he was struck with a cheap shot while he was trying to take down WR Zay Flowers when he was struck in the helmet by OT Ronnie Stanley. Ward has had a career full of concussions. During the game, he was cleared of the concussion protocol but was questionable to return then ruled out with an apparent neck injury.
#Browns have ruled CB Denzel Ward out with a neck injury and S Juan Thornhill is questionable with a calf injury.— Fred Greetham (@FredGreetham9) November 12, 2023
Another defensive back left the Baltimore game with an injury. S Juan Thornhill sustained a calf injury in the third quarter as he was making a tackle on Flowers. Eventually, he did not return as he was ruled out.
Hearing Nick Chubb started lifting weights again recently (upper body). Still has the ACL surgery ahead. But already working his way back... #Browns— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) October 19, 2023
If the Browns make the playoffs, is there a possibility of Nick Chubb returning? That would be a hard no. The most likely scenario is for the talented RB to return to OTA’s next spring after suffering a serious knee injury in Week 2 against Pittsburgh near the goal line. He was later diagnosed with a torn MCL and a damaged ACL and placed on IR. His projected pre-surgery recovery time was six to eight months but has been seen lifting weights.
The offensive line is a critical portion of how the Browns will proceed going forward. If they can get Jones back and perhaps move him to his natural position of left tackle, then keep either James Hudson or Geron Christian at right tackle, then this may work. Offensive Line coach Bill Callahan has done numerous Band-Aid jobs in the past with good results. No timeline on if Dunn might be able to return from his calf injury.
But the offense will only go as far as this offensive line will take them.
Beat the teams they are supposed to beat
It begins this week against the Steelers. No team can expect to win when they commit four turnovers which produce 17 points for the opponent. Just ain’t gonna happen.
The Browns are in a dogfight inside the division. The quest to the playoffs begins against Pittsburgh, a team that Cleveland can definitely defeat. They possess the 25th-ranked passing attack while the Browns have allowed the fewest passing yards (1,360) of any defense. A win over Pittsburgh would elevate the Browns’ chances of getting into the playoffs to 90%.
The Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Rams, and Chicago Bears should be considered wins. So should the Week 17 contest against the New York Jets if QB Aaron Rodgers still hasn’t returned from his injury. Currently, the Jets are the worst-scoring team in the league.
That leaves the Week 14 matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the finale at Cincinnati. Both of these games could go either way. The Jags on Sunday showed they aren’t that invincible and can be beaten.
But if Cleveland loses to both the Jags and Bengals, that computes to a 10-7-0 record.
Will 10 wins be good enough to make the playoffs? Assuredly if the Browns were an NFC club. But in the dominant AFC?
Nine wins are going to be a dead position in the AFC.
If Cleveland somehow can produce a 10 or 11-game win season, they will clinch a post-season slot without needing help from other teams.
They may even be in the conversation for the division crown. The Browns have won every division they were in since their maiden season of 1946. But the franchise has never captured the AFC North.
With their statement win over the Ravens, the Browns have put the rest of the division on notice that this just may be their year to eliminate one more obstacle.