The Cleveland Browns didn't lose just once, but twice in week 15. The first obviously came when they dropped to 7-7 and to last place in the AFC North after losing to the Las Vegas Raiders 16-14. The second loss came earlier in the week when COVID-19 ran rampant through the organization, sidelining 18 players and head coach Kevin Stefanski for Monday's contest.
In Stefanski's place, special teams coordinator Mike Preifer served as acting head coach and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt called the plays. Nick Mullens, who Cleveland called up from the practice squad, was starting under center for the Browns due to both Baker Mayfield and Case Keenum being sidelined with COVID.
Despite only having one practice under his belt, Mullens played well all things considered – throwing 147 yards on 30 attempts and 1 touchdown that could've won the game. Star running back Nick Chubb was also steady for the Browns as well with 97 yards on 23 attempts and a touchdown. But, what ultimately was Cleveland's downfall was the defense running out of steam in the closing moments of the game. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr rebounded from a late interception to drive Las Vegas down the field to set up Daniel Carlson's 48-yard field goal as time expired to win it.
"That locker room right now is hurting. That is the most I have seen it in that kind of pain," said Preifer after the game. "You are upset when you lose. Obviously, you are joyous when you win. When you lose that type of game, that one is tough. They are pretty down right now. We will have our job cut out for us this week in terms of coaches and getting them back up again and getting their spirits back up."
With that loss, things are even murkier for a Cleveland team that needed a win this week in order to truly stay in the thick of the playoffs and the AFC North crown. If they had won, they would currently be in first place in the division as the four seed. But, instead, the Browns are the No. 12 spot in the AFC. Five AFC teams are at 8-6, the Steelers are at 7-6-1, and four teams are at 7-7. If the playoffs started today, here is how things would shake out:
- Kansas City Chiefs (10-4)
- New England Patriots (9-5)
- Tennessee Titans (9-5)
- Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)
- Indianapolis Colts (8-6)
- Los Angeles Chargers (8-6)
- Buffalo Bills (8-6)
So, much like last week, if Cleveland had not lost to Los Angeles earlier in the season they would at least be in the thick of things with a Wild Card spot. But, as of right now, they aren't and every frustrating loss, much like the one to the Chargers, is coming back to bite the Browns.
While it might seem like Cleveland's season is all but over, the window to make the playoffs and win the division isn't completely shut. Heading into week 16 FiveThirtyEight gives the Browns a 15% chance to make the playoffs and a 12% chance to win the AFC North based on the remainder of their schedule.
After a tough, COVID-riddled loss on Monday to the Raiders, the Browns get the pleasure of traveling up to Green Bay to take on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
Unfortunately, it's who Cleveland has to face up next that could nearly end their season altogether. On Christmas Day the Browns get to travel up to the Frozen Tundra (based on the weather forecast it's actually more of a chilly lowland) of Lambeau Field to face the Green Bay Packers.
It's not just the fact that the Packers are 11-3 and are arguably the best team in football in every facet of the game. It's also having to try and get up and bounce back on a short week that will be tough for Cleveland. At least that's how some might feel outside of Berea.
“It is almost like it is actually a blessing that we have a short week because then you just come back to work and you have a new opponent," said Preifer. "You do not forget about that loss. It is hard to forget about that loss. You have to move on from it, but I think my philosophy has always been, ‘Hey, let’s go back to work. Let’s keep grinding. Let’s keep working and get ready for a really good football team on the road.’"
Sure, that's the right mentality for Preifer and the Browns to have coming off a tough loss. But, Green Bay also has Aaron Rodgers, likely this year's league MVP, under center and commanding the Packers' offense as well. This season Rodgers has completed 67.8% of his passes and thrown for 3487 yards, 30 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions.
With Cleveland having a depleted secondary, Rodgers should feast before he even has Christmas Day dinner. It's still unknown at this time who will be available for the Browns due to so many players being out with COVID-19. That in itself could also be a problem for Cleveland as well and definitely something worth monitoring as things get closer to game day.
If the Browns end up losing to the Packers, and it feels like they probably will, FiveThirtyEight gives them a 10% chance of making the playoffs and a 7% chance of winning the AFC North. Cincinnati, meanwhile, has to play Baltimore and that will have serious implications for Cleveland. If the Bengals win and the Browns lose, Cleveland's chances of making the increases with 12% for the playoffs and 10% for the division. If both teams lose, meanwhile, the Browns' chances go to 6% to make the playoffs and 4% to win the division.
There's also the Pittsburgh situation as well assuming Cleveland loses to Green Bay. The Steelers take on the red hot Chiefs and if Pittsburgh loses while Cincinnati wins, it's 13% for the playoffs and 11% for the division for Cleveland. If the Steelers win and the Bengals lose, there's a 3% chance to make the playoffs and a 0% chance for the division for the Browns. Finally, if both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh lose, the Browns have a 7% chance to make the playoffs and a 4% chance to win the division.
Granted, all of this handwringing can be pushed off to next week if Cleveland ends up pulling off the upset in Green Bay. But, for now, it feels less and less likely that the Browns will make the playoffs this season. Ditto for winning the AFC North for the first time in franchise history as well. But, anything is possible and maybe, for once, God can love Cleveland on his son's birthday of all days.
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