When Cleveland, Ohio became the focus of HBO's Hard Knocks during training camp, a culture shift seemed to be taking place right before our eyes. After a lackluster 2-5-1 start to the season, though, the team fired both head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley after the team's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Suddenly, the Browns woke up feeling dangerous.
Since Gregg Williams took over as interim head coach, the Browns have rattled off four wins in their last six games. The franchise that lost all 16 games in 2017 and hasn't won a playoff game since January 1, 1995 when Bill Belichick was head coach, actually has a path to make the playoffs in 2018.
Led by No. 1 overall pick in quarterback Baker Mayfield, rookie running back Nick Chubb, and a defense that's forced 30 turnovers, second only to the Chicago Bears in the NFL, the Browns have two AFC North division games remaining. They need help, but Cleveland can make the NFL playoffs if all these things happen.
1. Cleveland Beats Cincinnati and Baltimore
You've heard it, you love to hate it, but the cliche is coming back around to slap you in the face: the Browns control their own destiny. First, they have to take care of the Cincinnati Bengals (6-8) who are playing without both quarterback Andy Dalton (thumb) and wide receiver A.J. Green (toe) in their final home game at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Next, the Browns need to go into Baltimore and beat the Ravens for the second time this season after winning 12-9 earlier this season. It would be the first time since 2007 that Cleveland beat Baltimore twice during the regular season.
Step one is taking care of their own business. The rest is up to the football gods.
2. The Baltimore Ravens Finish 8-8
With two games left, the Baltimore (8-6) currently hold the sixth seed in the AFC Playoffs. With the Los Angeles Chargers (11-3) and Kansas City Chiefs (11-3) both clinching playoff berths in the AFC West, there will only be one spot left for the taking, and it's far from guaranteed that the Ravens can hold on.
Baltimore and rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson head west to play Los Angeles on December 23, a game that will take every once of coach John Harbaugh's attention, as the Chargers are one of the most complete teams in the NFL. Should the Ravens lose, they'll come home to face the Browns on December 23 in a must-win game for both sides.
However, if Baltimore loses out, the Browns' playoff hopes suddenly look even better.
3. The Miami Dolphins Drop One of Two
After their shocking last-second win over of the New England Patriots, the Dolphins (7-7) find themselves alive in the playoff chase, just one slot ahead of the Browns. If Miami loses either one of their games, Cleveland will pass them by, too.
The Dolphins host the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-10), a team that watched preseason Super Bowl aspirations crumble before the midway point in the season. Then, Miami travels north to play AFC East rival Buffalo, a place where the Dolphins have lost 10 of the last 15 games.
Postseason magic is brewing for coach Adam Gase's team, but one loss could end their hopes, and push those pesky Browns one step closer to the AFC Playoffs.
4. Colts and Titans Lose in Week 16, Then Tie Each Other
Now is where it gets really interesting.
Both the Indianapolis Colts (8-6) and Tennessee Titans (8-6) will have to lose next week; The Colts host the New York Giants and the Titans host the Washington Redskins. Should both of those things happen, then a December 30 game at Nissan Stadium in Nashville will prove to be the biggest game in Cleveland Browns history.
Just like the Steelers-Browns and Vikings-Packers earlier this season, the Colts and Titans will have to tie each other in the final game of their season.
Should ALL of these things happen, there will be three teams in the AFC who will finish the year with an 8-7-1 record, and the Cleveland Browns would get the nod for the final wild card spot based on their record against common opponents compared to the Indianapolis Colts.
So yes, the path is long, winding and treacherous, but we're living in a magical time where the Cleveland Browns could very well make the playoffs in the National Football League for the first time in a very, very, very long time.
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