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AFC North is not out of reach for the Browns: Here’s how

The NFL playoff picture is shaping up but the Browns are still eyeing the AFC North title

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Browns currently own the #5 seed in the AFC post-season tournament if the season were to end today. They sit at 8-5-0 and the outlook appears bright and sunny, with a chance of rainbows and unicorns.

That is, as long as they continue to win. If not, what was originally looked at as a unicorn was in reality a one-horned goat.

Four games are remaining – two at home and two on the road. If Cleveland plays their cards right, they should see a playoff berth - their first since 2020 and the second playoff season under head coach Kevin Stefanski.

In the AFC North, the Baltimore Ravens are 10-3-0, Cleveland at 8-5-0, the Pittsburgh Steelers 7-6-0, and the Cincinnati Bengals 7-6-0. This is the only division in the NFL without any losing clubs which has been the case for the majority of the year.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens Jessica Rapfogel-USA TODAY Sports

The Ravens are an outright good football team. QB Lamar Jackson is in the conversation for NFL MVP. Their defense is stout and they have an excellent running game ranked #1 in the league powered behind a very good offensive line which includes former Browns guard Kevin Zeitler.

Each week Baltimore is either the Number 1 or Number 2 seed in competition with the Miami Dolphins for that coveted distinction of being the best team in the AFC.

The #1 seed receives a bye for the opening round of games, and can rest their players for a solid week, plus, except for the Super Bowl, they have the huge advantage of getting all of their playoff games at home.

All of this for the Ravens plus becoming the division champions for 2023. After all, they currently possess a two-game lead over Cleveland. And remember, there are just four games left on the schedule.

Quite possibly the best team in the league with perhaps the best player as well? Seems all wrapped up nice and tidy with a huge friggin’ bow, doesn’t it?

The Great Cleveland Caper

Ah yes. Peril and intrigue. Feasting, imbibery, and debauchery. Theft and a one-horned goat named Lucky.

What if the Browns took the division? It is quite possible that thought came about as a result of the imbibery and debauchery portion of this situation, but really, what would it take for the Browns to steal the division crown from Baltimore? No, really.

At this juncture, the math probability of each AFC North club winning the division is as follows: Baltimore - 87%, Cleveland - 12%, Cincinnati - 1%, and Pittsburgh - 1%.

There have been these types of true stories that developed all through the annals of NFL history, so it can be done. And has been done.

The 2011 New York Football Giants were 6-6-0 as thoughts of the playoffs got further each week, especially during a four-game losing streak in Weeks 10-13. Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys had controlled the division for most of the season and were 7-5-0 as they controlled their own destiny. Then the Giants defeated Dallas and then lost to Washington to sit at 7-7-0 with two games left. Dallas remained one game up with an 8-6-0 record.

In Week 16 the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Cowboys as the Giants beat the crosstown New York Jets. One game remaining with both teams tied. It was Dallas at the Giants in the final game. New York won by 17 points and took the division. That was the good part. The bad portion was now they would have a single playoff game at home, and then all of the other games would be on the road.

Minnesota Vikings v Green Bay Packers Photo by Tom Dahlin/Getty Images

The Giants beat fifth-seed Atlanta at home, then traveled to freezing Green Bay and defeated the Number 1 seed Packers. Next, off to California for a sellout showdown with the #2 San Francisco 49ers and won that game as well in overtime. In the Super Bowl, they were huge underdogs but bested the New England Patriots and Tom Terrific 21-17 in the Super Bowl.

While the other team lost their final two games, the Giants went from 7-7-0, and needed to win their final two games, to Super Bowl champs.

This season, Baltimore has controlled the AFC North Division for most of the year. They own a two-game lead over Cleveland and a three-game advantage over the Steelers and Bengals.

Here is a brief rundown of the final four games for both the Browns and Ravens:

Week 15: Chicago Bears @ Cleveland, Baltimore @ Jacksonville

This week, the Browns have a home game against the Bears. Chicago is not a good team currently at 5-8-0 and like Cleveland, has had a season-long joust with the quarterback position. They are 25th in passing offense while the Browns have allowed the least amount of passing yards this year. After Cleveland wins this one handily, a 9-5-0 record is achieved.

Meanwhile, Baltimore faces the same Jacksonville Jaguars team (8-5-0) that the Browns just barely beat this past weekend. After winning seven of eight games, all of a sudden, the Jags have a two-game losing streak. The Jaguars are ranked Number 30 in pass defense which does not bode well against a very good Ravens passing attack. Jacksonville barely holds a one-game lead in that division over a pair of 7-6-0 teams, the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans. Jacksonville cannot afford any more losses and has to throw everything they have at the Ravens at home.

NFL: DEC 04 Browns at Texans Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Week 16: Cleveland @ Houston, Baltimore @ San Francisco (MNF)

The Texans are no joke and are seeking one of the lower seeds to the playoffs, and see Cleveland as a way to get in. Houston is ranked fourth in offensive output which will be a huge test for the Browns’ defense. The Texans are ranked Number 26th in pass defense which is their Achilles heel.

For the Ravens, the 49ers are the league’s highest-rated offensive unit. The Ravens will counter with the sixth-best offense but will go against a Niners defense that is Number 1 against the run, Baltimore’s offensive strength.

Week 17: New York Jets @ Cleveland (TNF), Miami @ Baltimore

The Jets have a ton of issues, not one being their defense which keeps them in every game. Their offense is horrible ranked 28th in passing and 30th in rushing. As long as QB Aaron Rodgers doesn’t come back to play in a meaningless game, Cleveland’s defense should steamroll New York.

The Dolphins are lights out on offense and have the NFL’s second-best offensive group. They are ranked fifth in rushing and second in passing. The Dolphins are ranked Number 8 in pass defense and fourth against the run. This will be a huge undertaking for Baltimore’s run-first offensive strategy.

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Week 18: Cleveland @ Cincinnati, Pittsburgh @ Baltimore

Do not sleep on the Bengals. Despite starter Joe Burrow being gone for the year, they are ranked ninth in total offense and still have all of those receiving weapons. The Browns rank Number 1 in pass defense. The Bengals are ranked Number 27 in pass defense and are bottom third against the run, Cleveland’s strength.

The Steelers are ranked Number 21 in pass defense and towards the bottom against the run. The Ravens have a #1 rating in rushing so this game just might be a blowout. Having said this, it is indeed a division game and Pittsburgh just might need to win their final game to get into the playoffs and could play to the death.

Tie-breaker scenarios

If the Browns run the table and Baltimore loses all four games, Cleveland will win the division.

More realistically, Cleveland will need to go 3-1 down the stretch while at the same time, the Ravens will have to accomplish the opposite and slide to a 1-3 finish.

Dawgs By Nature did some scientific research to examine how closely this could become a reality.

A quick shake of the Magic 8 Ball did not show this as a possibility but two staff members had to kiss puppies. Neither did a session with the Ouija board but we did find out one of us is getting a new tattoo soon and their spouse will not be amused. DBN plucked down 40 bucks for Madame Zelda only to find out all of us have father issues but she likes the Browns’ chances of winning the division. We bought the right kind of tea leaves until someone blurted out, “Hot tea is ready.”

The crystal ball used got us decent reception for our favorite Netflix shows. The only thing we figured out with the Tarot cards is that it was cheaper than Madame Zelda and the accompanying therapy sessions.

The end goal is for both the Browns and Ravens to end the season with identical 11-6-0 records.

Cleveland Browns v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The expectation here is for Cleveland to defeat the Bears, Jets, Bengals/Texans. The Ravens would lose to the Jaguars, 49ers, and Dolphins and beat the Steelers.

The first NFL tie-breaker is “Head-to-head.” Both teams defeated each other this year so that is a wash. The second tie-breaker is “Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division.” Yeah, say that really quick three times.

Both clubs currently have 3-2 division records. Cleveland must beat the Bengals in the final game, or the Ravens lose to the Steelers for the Browns to come out on top. Even if the Browns and Ravens have identical 11-5-0 records, if the Browns’ one loss is to Cincy, they lose out of the division crown as long as Baltimore defeats Pittsburgh as expected.

If the Browns beat the Bengals and the Ravens defeat the Steelers, they both have 4-2 division records.

On to the third tie-breaker: “Best won-loss-tie percentage in common games.”

This is where it gets tricky. If the Browns beat Cincinnati in Week 18, both teams would have gone 2-0 against the Bengals, and 1-1 versus Pittsburgh if the Ravens win in Week 18 as well. Both clubs beat Tennessee and Arizona.

Cleveland overcame both the 49ers and the Colts. If Baltimore loses to San Fran in Week 17, they would have lost to both of these teams. On the flipside, Baltimore beat the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks while the Browns lost to both squads.

This third tie-breaker could ultimately become the answer as to who wins the division.

If this level is all figured out and they remain tied, the fourth tie-breaker is “Conference records.” Both currently have 6-3 records in this area. In the final games for both franchises, each has three AFC opponents and one NFC game. Both the Bears and Niners outcome does not have any bearing with this stage but does in the final win-loss column.

Brown & Wiggen Tangle On The Field Photo by Robert Riger/Getty Images

The fifth tie-breaker is “Strength of victory in all games.” If it gets this far, Cleveland will get stuck with a participation trophy. The Browns all year have struggled to score points and accept field goals instead of touchdowns whereas the Ravens know where the end zone is. Baltimore has scored 361 points to Cleveland’s 289.

The Browns have played in the Western Division of the All-America Football Conference (1946-1949), the NFL’s American Conference (1950-1952), Eastern Conference (1953-1966), Century Division (1967-1969), AFC Central Division (1970-1995, 1999-2001), and the AFC North Division (2002-present).

Cleveland has won every sector they have competed in – except their current division. Can the Browns finally win their first AFC North crown?

For another $40, Madame Zelda will tell you the answer.