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How the Browns can clinch an NFL playoff spot, still catch Steelers in AFC North

Baker Mayfield and the 2020 Browns (9-3) are on the brink of the first AFC playoff berth in 18 years and are headed toward their best record since returning to compete in the NFL in 1999. Although their mark is strong going into Monday night’s game against the Ravens in Week 14, they still don’t have any breathing room in a top-heavy conference.

Cleveland is the current No. 5 seed as the top wild-card spot in the AFC. Even with a loss to Baltimore, the Browns would stay there at 9-4, holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over the No. 6 Colts. But also with a loss, the Browns would then be only one game ahead of the No. 7 Ravens (8-5) and No. 8 Dolphins (8-5).

A win to get to 10-3 is a whole different story. Not only would the Browns go up a full game and a tiebreaker on the Colts, they would go up two games on the Dolphins and three games on the Ravens. At the same time, the Browns would suddenly be one game behind the Steelers (11-2) in the AFC North division race with three games left to play.

Barring an absolute disaster — a free fall to 9-7 over the final month — the Browns are heavy favorites to make the playoffs. They have valuable tiebreakers against both the Colts and the AFC South-leading Titans. They did lose to the Raiders, but at 7-6, that team is quickly headed in the wrong direction.

Taking 0-4 out of the equation, here’s a look at the four different finishing scenarios for Cleveland:

MORE: The Browns best season in a decade, by the numbers

Browns go 4-0 and finish 13-3

The Browns would at worst tie for the third-best record in the AFC with the Bills in this scenario as a locked-in playoff team. But forget about settling on the wild card here — could they win the North with this record?

The answer is yes. The Steelers and Browns play each other in Cleveland in Week 17. Assuming the Steelers and Browns win their other games and the Browns win that one, the teams would be tied at 13-3.

As that would mean the teams split the season series, division record would be the first tiebreaker. The Steelers would then finish 5-1 in North play; the Browns have already lost two division games.

The Browns would need to finish a game ahead of the Steelers to win the North in this scenario. That means either the Bengals (in Cincinnati in Week 15) or the Colts (in Pittsburgh in Week 16) would need to saddle the Steelers with an additional loss to drop them to 12-4. The Bengals are a real long shot at home; the Colts, at 9-4 and playing well, have a fighting chance to help the Browns there on the road.

Winning the division at 13-3 could put the Browns as high as the No. 2 seed behind the Chiefs (now 12-1) and no lower than No. 3 because if the Bills also got to 13-3, they would have the tiebreaker based on a superior conference record.

Browns go 3-1 and finish 12-4

The Browns would see their division hopes dashed here, because it’s highly unlikely the Steelers lose out to drop to 11-5. But they would definitely secure the No. 5 seed over either the 12-4 Colts or 12-4 Titans, as they have beaten both teams. Neither the Dolphins (8-5) nor Ravens (7-5) can hit 12 wins.

MORE: Complete NFL playoff picture after Week 14

Browns go 2-2 and finish 11-5

This is a somewhat reasonable scenario, because the Browns are slight home underdogs to the Ravens in Week 14 and will have a similiar status against the Steelers in Week 17. In between, they are slightly favored against the Giants (5-8) on the road and heavily favored against the Jets (0-13) at home.

It’s unlikely both the Titans and Colts win out to get to 12-4, thus taking away the Browns’ tiebreaker vs. the AFC South front-runners. There’s a better chance both will be 11-5. The Dolphins have a low chance of running the table to get to 11-5. 

That leaves the Ravens, who would have a very good shot at getting to 11-5 if they beat the Browns with three very favorable games left. Here, the Browns, worst case, are looking at a three-way tie between them, the Ravens and the AFC South runners-up. 

The Titans are a good bet to finish 8-4 in AFC play. The Colts would be looking at a 7-5 conference record if they finished 11-5. The Browns, if their two losses come to the Ravens and Steelers, could still finish 7-5 in the conference. The Ravens, by winning out, also would have a 7-5 conference record.

If the Titans and Colts both finish 12-4, the Titans would be bound to keep the division-record tiebreaker to win the South. The Ravens, if they swept the Browns, would own the head-to-head tiebreaker over them, like the Browns having the tiebreakers over the Colts.  The Ravens, who also beat the Colts, would jump to No. 5 with a sweep of the other two teams. The Browns would come next in the pecking order and finish No. 6 ahead of the Colts.

Browns go 1-3 and finish 10-6

The Browns won’t lose to the Jets, but they could easily lose the Giants game as well as the Ravens and Steelers ones. At 10-6, they would certainly finish behind the AFC South runners-up and the Ravens.

So the question is, can the Browns hold on to the playoff spot over the Dolphins and Raiders? The Dolphins getting to 10-6 would give them a conference record of 7-5. The Browns would also have that 7-5 mark with losses to the Ravens and Steelers.

The third tiebreaker is common games. The Browns, assuming they win in Week 16, would be 4-1 against the Bengals, Jaguars, Jets and Raiders. The Dolphins are 4-0 against those teams going into Week 16 against the Raiders. Winning in Las Vegas would give Miami the tiebreaker in a 10-6 deadlock with the Browns for No. 7. But that’s assuming the Dolphins also beat the Patriots at home and the Bills on the road to set that up.

Say the Dolphins beat the Patriots and Bills but lose to the Raiders to get to 10-6 with the Browns with the same record in common games. Then the next tiebreaker is strength of victory. The Browns, for now, are headed to barely get that one, thanks to the wins over the Titans and Colts.

The Browns are in great shape if they finish .500 or better. Going cold in December would be where that slim chance of missing the playoffs comes into play.

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