NFL playoff picture: How Browns can still win AFC North race, make playoffs

The Browns are not playing well. The Browns also still have a shot at sneaking into the playoffs as AFC North champions with only two weeks left in the 2021 season. Both of those statements are true, reflecting the unpredictable nature of the NFL playoff picture during a 18-week, 17-game schedule.

Cleveland lost two games in one week, vs. Las Vegas on Monday in Week 15 and at Green Bay on Saturday in Week 16. Standing at 7-8 going into Week 17, the Browns don’t have any mulligans left and must get all the breaks to go their way to make it a second consecutive playoff appearance. 

But as crazy it sounds, the Browns can still rise from the No. 12 team in the AFC to the No. 4 in only two weeks. Here’s a breakdown the scenario:

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NFL playoff picture: Browns’ AFC playoff chances

First, before the Browns can think about what needs to happen outside of their games, they need to win their last two games. They play at the Steelers (7-7-1) next Monday night in Week 17. They finish with the Bengals (9-6) at home in Week 18.

The Browns lost to the Steelers at home 15-10 in Week 8. They routed the Bengals on the road 41-16 in Week 9. They will look to go 2-0 with the same back-to-back matchups to close the season. Should the Browns do their part, they would finish 9-8.

Second, they need the first-place Bengals to lose out to also finish 9-8. Cleveland can take care of half the Cincinnati formula in Week 18 at home. Cincinnati also has the toughest AFC matchup there is in Week 17, vs. No. 1 seed Kansas City.

Third, they need the second-place Ravens (8-7) to lose one of their two remaining games to finish no higher than 9-8. That’s also reasonable, given the Ravens host the NFC No. 3 Rams in Week 17 and host the Steelers in Week 18. Baltimore is also in total freefall, having lost four consecutive games.

Fourth, they need the third-place Steelers to lose once, but that part of the business is also included on the Browns’ agenda in Week 17.

In the event of a tie between only the Browns and Bengals at 9-8, the Browns would own the tiebreaker from having swept the season series. Should there be a three-way tie between the Browns, Bengals and Ravens, the tiebreaker would be who has the best overall record against the other two teams. The Browns would be 3-1, while the Bengals would be only 2-2 and the Ravens 1-3. The Steelers, with one more loss, could finish only 8-8-1 and be out of the conversation.

The Browns in essence are in an AFC North satellite tournament. Should they take down the Steelers and Bengals, with some help from the Chiefs and the Rams (or Steelers), they would upgrade from 2020 wild-card team to 2021 division winners under Kevin Stefanski.

The AFC North race is the only reason the Browns still have a playoff path. They’ve done better to position themselves in the division than in the conference as a whole trying to boost their wild-card chances.

Should the Browns get to 9-8, they would improve their record in AFC play to only 6-6. They lose head-to-head tiebreakers to the No. 5 Patriots (9-6), the No. 8 Chargers (8-7) and No. 9 Raiders (8-7). The No. 5 Colts (9-6) can finish no worse than 7-5 in conference play.

The Dolphins (7-7), who would be the new No. 7 going into Week 17 with a win on Monday night, may end up 7-5 in AFC play at 9-8 overall. The Browns only have a surefire tiebreaker against the No. 13 Broncos (7-8), whom they beat in Week 7.

There are too many permutations there for the Browns to secure a wild card when only the final spot is within realistic reach.

There’s much simpler path to the playoffs for the Browns by just winning the North. The bonus would be able to host a division runner-up, such as the Colts or Patriots, in the wild-card round.

Myles Garrett and the defense have given the Browns a strong competitive backbone, but they will need Baker Mayfield and the offense to become efficient and productive to execute their side of the equation. Pittsburgh has never been an easy place for Cleveland to play and prime time makes it tougher for the road underdog. Cincinnati is playing much better, too, with Joe Burrow and the offense rolling to expect anything close to Week 9’s walkover.

The Browns have fewer obstacles than expected to still make the playoffs as AFC North champions. Their biggest stumbling block in the way is their own play.