How the Browns can win the AFC North for the first time in franchise history – Week 17 Edition

Despite losing their second game in a row, Cleveland's window for the playoffs and the division still hasn't completely shut.

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There are few ways to positively spin the Cleveland Browns losing to the Green Bay Packers 24-22 on Christmas Day. It's the equivalent to being a kid, hoping your dad, not played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, got you the Turbo Man doll everybody wants but instead, you get Booster, Turbo Man’s faithful pet sidekick instead.

Jingle All the Way references, a Christmas classic, aside the Browns were flat out dreadful in this loss to the Packers, especially quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield was a momentum killer for the Browns as well – throwing four costly interceptions, including one that sealed the victory for Green Bay.

"It’s extra frustrating," said Mayfield. "Like I said, I thought the defense played great. Our skill guys played well. Offensive line, the same thing. Our backs, obviously running their tails off. So that’s why it’s frustrating for me. Like I said, I hurt this team. There’s no excuse.”

It's become increasingly clear that Mayfield is not the quarterback of the future for the Browns. Obviously, they need to find the right answer under center in order to keep their championship-caliber roster from completely crashing.

But, surprisingly, the window for this season isn't completely shut either. It appears Christmas came a day late for Cleveland fans as the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers were both shellacked on Sunday. Sure, it's great to see some of the Browns' most-hated rivals get embarrassed. But, according to FiveThirtyEight, with Baltimore and Pittsburgh both losing, Cleveland has an 11% chance to win the division and an 11% chance to make the playoffs. Sure, the chances are slim but Cleveland fans are still probably feeling like Lloyd Christmas after this weekend.

With that said, if things started today, this is what the overall playoff seeding would be like in the AFC:

  1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)
  2. Tennesse Titans (10-5)
  3. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6)
  4. Buffalo Bills (9-6)
  5. Indianapolis Colts (9-6)
  6. New England Patriots (9-6)
  7. Baltimore Ravens (8-7)

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The only real shot the Browns have at this point is winning the AFC North, which we have mentioned several times will be the first time in the franchise's history. Sure, they could still technically catch up to any of the teams in the Wild Card spots as well but that gets a lot more difficult for Cleveland. So, for now, we'll focus on what needs to happen in order for the Browns to complete the primary objective of this ongoing series. Besides, it's better when Cleveland gets to host a playoff game as well, right?

The only problem is that in order to get there, the Browns need to win their next two games – starting with a tilt in Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers. This will be the second time Cleveland takes on Pittsburgh this season, with the Browns falling to the Steelers on Halloween 15-10 in Cleveland. Mayfield and the offense struggled while the defense played incredibly in order to the Browns in the game until the very end.

Sound familiar?

But, this time around there won't be any tricks for the Cleveland, only treats. Things are different at this point in the season compared to the last time the Browns played the Steelers. Since beating Cleveland on Halloween Pittsburgh has looked lost, going 3-4-1 over that stretch. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is nearing retirement and looks indifferent on the field all while Mike Tomlin tries to avoid his first losing season during his time in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are imploding all while the Browns are trying to cobble their season back together. This could be the perfect storm for an all-time ugly game in a somewhat relevant rivalry. But, thankfully, Cleveland knows what it takes in order to win ugly and should feel good about their chances against Pittsburgh. If the Browns secure the win over the Steelers, they have a 24% chance of making the playoffs and a 23% chance of winning the AFC North. Again, Cleveland should feel good about their chances but the team and their fans need to pay close attention to what else is going on in the division.

The last time the Browns played the Steelers, they were punked Halloween 15-10. But, as Cleveland heads into Pittsburgh in week 17, things are different.

First off are the Cincinnati Bengals, who are at home against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Bengals are currently leading the AFC North and are on a small winning streak, with their latest victory coming over the Ravens 41-21. In that game, Joe Burrow threw a Cincinnati franchise-record 525 yards and Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase continued to keep the Bengals red hot in the air. No one expected this from Cincinnati this season and it seems like the playoffs are within sight based on how things have been lately.

That is, of course, before they had to host the red-hot Chiefs. Other than Green Bay, Kanas City is the hottest team in football winning 9 of their last 10 games with their last loss coming in late October. The Chiefs feel like a safe bet to make it to the Super Bowl this year and feel like an even more safe bet against the Bengals. If Cincinnati loses while Cleveland beats Pittsburgh, the Browns have a 37% chance to win both the division and make the playoffs. If the Bengals win, meanwhile, they win the AFC North regardless of whether or now the Browns win.

In the game between the Ravens and the Los Angeles Rams (both teams that originated in Cleveland) in Baltimore, meanwhile, the stakes are high but they aren't as dire. The Ravens are on a massive decline due to COVID-19 while the Rams are getting hot at the right time. If Baltimore loses, on top of Cleveland winning and Cincinnati losing, the Browns have a 56% chance at both the division and the playoffs. If Baltimore somehow wins and Cincinnati loses, while Cleveland wins, it drops to a 16% chance for both the AFC North crown and the playoffs.

Needless to say, Browns fans should be rooting for the Chiefs and the Rams this weekend. Some of the really old Cleveland fans should dust off their Cleveland Rams memorabilia as well in order to have any and all good karma come the Browns' way. Granted, if Cleveland loses to Pittsburgh then the Browns' window of opportunity is virtually shut. But, sometimes the Browns perform their best when they're feeling dangerous. This weekend might be the right one for that to happen.

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