The Cleveland Browns have not had a winning season since 2007. The closest they’ve been to .500 was a 7-9 campaign in 2014, and that becomes even sadder with the reminder that those Browns, under then-head coach Mike Pettine, had squandered a 7-4 start to get there. (He was fired after his second season when the team went 3-13.) All these dismal facts aside, the point is, this team has not had consequential games this late in the season in quite some time.
Saturday night, with the aid of Broncos head coach Vance Joseph trying to defeat himself, the Browns went to Denver and won, 17-16. Cleveland had not accomplished that in 28 years.
This wasn’t their cleanest performance. Browns QB Baker Mayfield totaled only 188 passing yards and Nick Chubb wasn’t getting much on the ground until he broke off a 40-yard rush late in the fourth quarter. But the defense harried Broncos quarterback Case Keenum and shut down electric running back Phillip Lindsay for a total of 44 yards. Cleveland had been 1-5 on the road before Saturday.
“A win’s a win,” said Mayfield. “I’ll take it. Definitely wasn’t our best game by any means — starting with myself — but coming out with a win on the road is hard, and we did that.”
Given that the Browns had a total of one win in the two previous seasons—still an insane achievement; thanks, Hue Jackson—this year’s squad reaching a 6-7-1 record is overwhelming. (Might’ve been even better if not for poor Zane Gonzalez.) It’s like if you gave a starving person an entire wedding cake, or dumped a bag of brand-new chew toys in front of a puppy. Everything is happening at once! The Browns are in the playoff hunt!
Yes, it’s weird to say the Browns can make the playoffs when it’s not Week 1 and a joke. Even if every victory so far has felt like a Super Bowl win, they have an existent, albeit slim, chance at the postseason. The Steelers’ three-game losing streak has opened up the top of the AFC North. ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio broke down what would need to happen for the Browns to make their first playoff game since 2002:
If Cleveland beats the Bengals next week, if the Steelers lose to the Patriots and Saints, and if the Ravens lose to either the Buccaneers tomorrow or the Chargers next Saturday night, the division will be divided on the final Sunday of the season.
And here’s how it would go: If the Steelers beat the Bengals, the Steelers win the division. If the Steelers lose to the Bengals, the winner of Browns at Ravens wins the AFC North.
The most likely Brownsy outcome would be that everything goes right for them until the Steelers beat up on the Bengals in Week 17 to snatch away first place. Still, there’s something here. The roster is full of young talent; the offense has more than one player who keeps a defense honest; and defensive-minded mob boss Gregg Williams has coached better than anyone since, what, Rob Chudzinski? Romeo Crennel? God, who was the last Browns coach who didn’t seem dead in the water the day he was hired? It’s far too early to figure out whether this success will carry over to next year—look how things turned out for the 49ers, everyone’s favorite sneaky playoff pick—but this team might not need to bring in Condoleezza Rice for an interview after the season’s over.