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NFL Power Rankings: This is not a drill, Browns are going to playoffs (unless they screw it up)

Frank Schwab
·14 min read
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The Cleveland Browns are 8-3 heading into December, and it hasn’t been a big story this NFL season. Maybe it’s the constant headlines about COVID-19.

The Browns won four games total between 2015-17. They haven’t won eight games in a season since 2007. The last time Cleveland was in the playoffs was 2002. That’s still the only playoff appearance since the franchise restarted in 1999. The Browns blew a big lead to the Pittsburgh Steelers and lost in their only playoff game that season.

In a normal season, the resurrection of the Browns would be a big deal. It might become one as the postseason grows closer. The most important thing is this: We should assume the postseason will include the Browns. Finally.

Sunday was a good day for Cleveland’s playoff hopes. The Las Vegas Raiders, who have the tiebreaker over the Browns, lost to the Atlanta Falcons. The Browns struggled to put away a bad Jacksonville Jaguars team but a 27-25 win counts the same as a blowout. When you’ve made the playoffs once this century, you’re not stressing about style points.

The Browns suddenly have a nice lead in the wild-card race. The Baltimore Ravens, who are scheduled to play the 10-0 Steelers on Wednesday at far less than full strength, are the AFC’s No. 8 team (seven will make the playoffs) and trail Cleveland by a game-and-a-half. The Raiders, in the No. 9 spot, are two games behind the Browns.

The Browns still play the putrid New York Jets and Giants, who aren’t very good either. If they win those games, as they should, that’s 10 wins. It would be hard to catch them. Here’s the remaining schedule:

Week 13: at Titans
Week 14: vs. Ravens
Week 15: at Giants
Week 16: at Jets
Week 17: vs. Steelers

The games against the Tennessee Titans, Ravens and Steelers are tough but not impossible. We don’t know how all the disruptions for the Ravens the past week will affect them the rest of the season. The Steelers could possibly have the No. 1 seed wrapped up by Week 17, and it doesn’t appear they’re focused on a 16-0 season. Even if the Browns just beat the Jets and Giants, they might be OK. A win in any of the other games would make them a virtual lock.

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Then again, this is the Browns. Ask any Browns fan if he or she feels comfortable penciling Cleveland into the NFL’s bracket yet. It’s not that the Browns have gotten their fans’ hopes up just to dash them too often. It’s that there’s rarely been any hope at all.

It isn’t a perfect Browns team. Far from it. They run the ball very well. They’re mostly league average in everything else, and that includes quarterback Baker Mayfield. The Browns are deficient at receiver due to Odell Beckham Jr.’s season-ending injury, though Jarvis Landry finally had his first big game of the season on Sunday. They aren’t terrible or great in any defensive metric. It’s a team that could still falter down the stretch.

But they are 8-3. It’s hard to miss the playoffs after you reach five games over .500. The Browns might not be the dynamic contender they appeared to be turning into a couple years ago when they had seemingly endless draft picks and cap space, but they’re a good, solid team that has a cushion in the wild-card race.

This might not be the season Browns fans envisioned, with limited fans and a pandemic overshadowing it all. But it’s still worth celebrating, if Cleveland finishes the job and makes it to the playoffs. It has been a long time coming.

Here are the NFL power rankings after Week 12 (the rankings were updated after the Ravens-Steelers game on Wednesday afternoon):

32. New York Jets (0-11, Last Week: 32)

I have to agree with my colleague Charles Robinson: Keeping Adam Gase around until the end of the season might be a bad idea because nothing positive is going to happen, and you have to assume Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is watching. Gase not coming clean about about calling plays Sunday when pressed by the media was ridiculous, and the Jets’ entire franchise will keep being implicated in nonsense like that as long as Gase is around.

31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-10, LW: 31)

The Jaguars fired general manager Dave Caldwell, which seems a bit harsh considering everyone knew Tom Coughlin had final say over the roster until he was fired late last year. Still, the Jaguars need a reset. I assume Doug Marrone will be gone at the end of the season. If not, then nothing team owner Shad Khan does makes much sense.

30. Cincinnati Bengals (2-8-1, LW: 30)

Zac Taylor is 4-22-1. Does he get a pass because Joe Burrow got hurt this season and the Bengals are in a rebuild? It’s rare to see a coach with that record get much time. Only five coaches in NFL history have coached more than 27 games and had a worse winning percentage than Taylor.

29. Dallas Cowboys (3-8, LW: 29)

The failed fake punt will be the blooper that sums up the 2020 Cowboys. Coaches don’t just call fakes like that on a whim. They see something on film they can exploit and plan on a fake to take advantage of that. That’s what happened with the Cowboys. Sometimes the other team defends it. Still, when you’re a team as bad as the Cowboys and that happens on such a big stage, it looks terrible and you’re going to hear about it.

28. Detroit Lions (4-7, LW: 28)

The Lions had to fire Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn, but I’m not sure how you sell that job to someone with other options. It’s not like the roster is good or there’s a winning tradition. The Lions job has been a dead end for coaches for decades. The only thing the Lions really have to sell is that it’s one of just 32 jobs.

27. Philadelphia Eagles (3-7-1, LW: 27)

I don’t know what Carson Wentz would have to do to get benched. But it’s time. It might be good for him, for the Eagles, for everyone.

26. Denver Broncos (4-7, LW: 23)

Everyone seems to think the Broncos deserved special treatment from the NFL, instead of focusing on the quarterbacks who didn’t wear masks in a meeting. The Broncos were in a terrible situation, but we knew that some teams would be in unfair spots in this weird season, and let’s not absolve the Broncos of blame.

25. Houston Texans (4-7, LW: 26)

Over Houston’s last six games, Deshaun Watson has 1,750 yards, 15 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 122.3 passer rating. That’s without one of the best receivers in the NFL, DeAndre Hopkins, who Houston traded to Arizona this past offseason. Now, Watson goes ahead without Will Fuller V, who was suspended six games. If you look at Houston’s losing record and think it reflects on Watson in the slightest, you’re doing the whole football analysis thing wrong.

24. Washington Football Team (4-7, LW: 25)

Daniel Jones’ injury might open the door for Washington. Washington needs to finish ahead of the Giants because New York swept the season series and owns the tiebreaker. Washington isn’t going to win many games, so it needs every loss from the Giants it can get.

23. New York Giants (4-7, LW: 22)

The Giants’ next four games are against the Seahawks, Cardinals, Browns and Ravens. They might not have won any of those games with Daniel Jones. It will be a huge challenge if Jones misses any of those games with a hamstring injury. It’s getting a lot harder to figure how any NFC East team will get to seven wins.

22. Atlanta Falcons (4-7, LW: 24)

What got into the Falcons? The Raiders are not a bad team, but Atlanta made them look like it on Sunday. It will be interesting this week if the Falcons carry that over into a rematch against the Saints.

21. Carolina Panthers (4-8, LW: 20)

The late bye helps the Panthers. Christian McCaffrey has a better chance to return. D.J. Moore, who hurt his ankle Sunday, could play after the bye, as well. Carolina isn’t going to be in the postseason chase, but it seems the Panthers want to finish well and enter the offseason with some positive vibes.

20. Chicago Bears (5-6, LW: 17)

Matt Nagy is 25-18 as an NFL head coach. That record might surprise some who have heard nothing but criticism of Nagy for the better part of the last two seasons. The Bears are in a weird spot. Nagy doesn’t look like he can turn around an offense that was supposed to be his calling card. But he doesn’t have a terrible record and no matter how weird NFL Coach of the Year voting is, he has that award, too. There’s a case to be made for him to return, yet most Bears fans wouldn’t be happy if that happened.

19. Los Angeles Chargers (3-8, LW: 16)

I’m not sure it was the smartest thing to give Austin Ekeler 14 carries and 16 targets in his first game back from a bad hamstring injury, but hopefully he got out of it OK. Those are the kinds of decisions that get made by a staff that is starting to realize it needs to win at all costs to save its jobs.

18. San Francisco 49ers (5-6, LW: 19)

It stinks for the 49ers to have to play in Arizona for at least their next two home games. Given the uncertainty about everything in the summer, it’s surprising no other team had to play away from its home stadium before now. We knew some teams would catch unfair breaks this weird season, and San Francisco might lead the league in that category.

17. New England Patriots (5-6, LW: 21)

It’s pretty remarkable that Bill Belichick is 5-5 in games Cam Newton has started, when Newton has four passing touchdowns and nine interceptions. He’s also doing it with a defense that lost several key pieces. Belichick won’t win Coach of the Year or anything, but he’s doing more with the hand he was dealt than anyone else would.

16. Minnesota Vikings (5-6, LW: 18)

Justin Jefferson posted a 7-70-2 line and is up to 52-918-6 on the season despite the Vikings inexplicably barely playing him the first two weeks. If we redrafted the 2020 rookie class, where would Jefferson go? Top 10? Top 5?

15. Arizona Cardinals (6-5, LW: 14)

I don’t hate the Cardinals going for the touchdown at the end of the first half on fourth down. Bringing the clock down to 3 seconds was an error — you’d like to pin the Patriots deep and go for a safety — but it wasn’t an egregious one. What was bad was having the fastest quarterback in the NFL and just handing it off up the middle to Kenyan Drake. A good example of the decision to go for it being right and the play call being bad.

14. Las Vegas Raiders (6-5, LW: 11)

If you’re putting together a list of worst losses this season, the Raiders’ 43-6 loss at Atlanta might be No. 1. Losing by 37 to a bad Falcons team without Julio Jones, when you’re trying to make the playoffs for just the second time since 2002, is simply awful. The Raiders looked terrible. It was an inexplicable no-show and it might cost them a playoff spot.

13. Miami Dolphins (7-4, LW: 15)

Up next for the Dolphins is the Bengals. They are going to win that. Let’s say Ryan Fitzpatrick starts and plays well, which he should against that team. Would the Dolphins bring Tua Tagovailoa back for their game against the Chiefs the following week or ride it out with Fitzpatrick?

12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5, LW: 10)

The Buccaneers are 1-3 with Antonio Brown in the lineup. That’s likely a coincidence. But it’s also worth wondering if forcing targets to Brown has changed the makeup of the offense. Brown hasn’t done anything yet, with an 8.4-yard average and no touchdowns. Yet, he has 29 targets in four games. Signing Brown was always risky but for the off-field issues. Maybe the potential detriment on the field was overlooked.

11. Baltimore Ravens (6-5, LW: 13)

The Ravens fought hard. It’s pretty amazing they had a shot to beat an undefeated Steelers team with 17 players including reigning MVP Lamar Jackson on the reserve/COVID-19 list. It was impressive enough I moved them up a spot from Monday’s original publication. I still believe if the Ravens are past their coronavirus outbreak that they can be a factor in January.

10. Los Angeles Rams (7-4, LW: 7)

Cam Akers looked pretty good on a day the rest of the Rams backfield struggled. Maybe it’s time to ditch the committee and see what Akers can do. Maybe that would help the Rams break free of their weird inconsistency.

9. Indianapolis Colts (7-4, LW: 4)

A bad performance in all ways. It was tough losing defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, center Ryan Kelly and running back Jonathan Taylor. That doesn’t explain it all. It was a brutal loss for a team that was gaining momentum.

8. Cleveland Browns (8-3, LW: 12)

The Jaguars can’t cover anyone, but it was still good to see Jarvis Landry finally go off. He has said he was playing through a broken rib. Maybe he’s healthy. He’d add a different dimension to an offense that could use it.

7. Buffalo Bills (8-3, LW: 8)

The fourth quarter wasn’t pretty, but it was still a win over a Chargers team that is much better than their record. Next week, the Bills catch a bit of a break when they play a “road game” against the 49ers, who aren’t allowed to play at Santa Clara and will play in Arizona instead. Not that home field matters much in 2020, but it is an edge to have a neutral-site game instead.

6. Seattle Seahawks (8-3, LW: 9)

Who would you pick if you had the choice of any receiver in the NFL? There are plenty of fair answers to the question, but it’s fine to take DK Metcalf. Keep this in mind: He’s just 22 years old. He’s going to get a lot better.

5. Tennessee Titans (8-3, LW: 6)

That overtime win over the Ravens two weeks ago might have been what the Titans needed to fix their season. Before that game, they’d lost three of four and were just blown out by the Colts. On Sunday, they destroyed Indianapolis. It looked like a different team than the one we saw just two weeks before that.

4. Green Bay Packers (8-3, LW: 5)

Tight end Robert Tonyan reemerged with five catches for 67 yards and a touchdown. Every time a Packers pass catcher other than Davante Adams emerges, it makes the Packers look that much more impressive.

3. New Orleans Saints (9-2, LW: 3)

Maybe the Saints’ plan would have been different if the Broncos had a quarterback. But that wasn’t an impressive afternoon for the Taysom Hill experiment. Another game against Atlanta, who Hill was very good against last week, might get New Orleans’ pass offense back on track.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-0, LW: 2)

It wasn’t pretty. There were dropped passes, red-zone failures and the Steelers let a shorthanded Ravens team hang around way too long. But an NFL season is long, and no win should be taken for granted. It’s an achievement to be 11-0. They’re not all going to look good.

1. Kansas City Chiefs (10-1, LW: 1)

Patrick Mahomes finally got to 1,500 career passes, which qualified him for the all-time record in passer rating. His 110.7 rating is now the record. Deshaun Watson is a distant second at 103.6. Only four quarterbacks in NFL history have a career rating above 98.7. We’re watching something special.

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