Something quite different this week from the normal Top Five: More like a Top Two, or maybe a Top Three or even a Top Four...a quite early look at a miracle's possibilities.
I felt bitterness yesterday, bitterness that I have not felt about a Browns' game since the loss to the Steelers in the playoffs after the 2002 season, when the Browns had a nice lead and just could not hold it.
Does this bitterness over a game in November mean that I am more of a fan now than I have been for eight years? No, I have always been -- and will always be -- a Browns fan. Nothing could change that if losing the original Browns to Baltimore did not drive it out of me. Maybe what I felt was disappointment because this team is starting to make me believe in it.
Today, rather than dwell much more on the bitter loss to the Jets, I will put on my optimist's hat and go way out on a limb and find hope in Cleveland perhaps still making the playoffs this year. A long shot? You bet, but until there is no hope, any hope is better than none at all, which is right about where we were last year by this time with our 1-8 team.
So let's take a very early look around the AFC, and let's try to find some reasons why the Browns, with the right set of circumstances breaking their way, could still be in the post-season.
One more thing: This will require a suspension of disbelief on our part...we are going to have to try to imagine the Browns running the table from here on out. I can't believe I am considering that possibility, but after the last three games I am convinced that it is possible. The Jets' game actually did the convincing, because, while the Browns most definitely sneaked up on the Saints, and perhaps the Patriots as well, there is just no way that New York was not aware of what the Browns were capable of before that game yesterday, and even so, without a fumble in overtime, that game was there for the taking. And there is no team on the remaining schedule any better than the last three teams -- and that includes the Ravens and the Steelers.
So -- let's say that the Browns win out and finish 10-6....
#2 (?) -- Winning the AFC North
This is a long-shot, granted, even if the Browns go 10-6. Right now Baltimore and Pittsburgh are 6-3, and to pass both of them -- or to catch both and win tie-breakers -- would take some real doing. But after watching Pittsburgh last night, you have to wonder if the Steelers are not remembering their second-half swoon from last year.
Of course there is a game left with both the Ravens and the Steelers. Win them both and both teams have a sure four losses. And because Pittsburgh and Baltimore play each other again, one of them is assured of at least five losses (remember, we are assuming the Browns run the table -- important to keep that in mind when I say something like "one of them is assured of at least five losses").
Baltimore still has a game left with New Orleans. No sure win there. So if Pittsburgh were to beat the Ravens and Baltimore fell to the Saints -- bingo, at least six losses for the Ravens, and a likely 3-3 divisional record...worse than the Browns 4-2 in the division.
Let's run with that "if Pittsburgh were to beat the Ravens"...are there two likely losses on the remaining Steelers' schedule besides the Browns' game? This one is a little more of a stretch. The Steelers do have a match-up with the Jets down the road (five losses?). Maybe Cincinnati gets it together and wins in Pittsburgh and the Steelers also end up 3-3 in the division.
And with the above two scenarios -- even if all three teams ended up 10-6 -- the Browns would win with the best divisional record.
And of course the Steelers have Oakland this week...suddenly not a sure thing.
#1 (?) -- Winning A Wild Card Berth
If you follow football at all you know how wacky the playoff possibilities can get during the final weeks. I will not sit here and pretend that it is not possible that my scenario here could backfire if -- say -- the Raiders had to beat the Chiefs by 183 points in the season finale to win the tie-breaker for the Browns. When records against common opponents are thrown into the mix, or point differential in common games, or some such exotic scenario, all bets are off.
So, for the sake of simplicity, let's just see if our 10-6 Cleveland Browns could get in without needing a degree in mathematics and quantum physics to figure out a seven-team tie or something. In other words -- let's stick to a two-team tie for a playoff spot.
Trust me, if I am allowed to, I will be all over the playoff scenarios when that time comes. For now, we are living in a "what-if" kind of dream. Let's run with that. shall we?
To simplify even further, I am going to concede a wild-card spot to the team that does not win the AFC East. The Jets and the Patriots are both 7-2...let's not "hope" that one of them loses four games so the Browns could catch them. Even if that were the case and we caught the Jets -- sorry, folks, New York has the tie-breaker over Cleveland.
Four division champions and either the Jets or the Patriots a wild-card...leaves one spot.
The Browns are only two games behind five teams right now, and one of those five will likely win the West...so let's say two games behind four teams we would have to catch.
One of those teams is Miami. In my scenario the Browns have beaten Miami. That is five losses for the Dolphins -- who still have to play the Jets and New England.
Another of those teams is Jacksonville, who the Browns also beat (next week) in my scenario. Who else do the Jaguars need to be worried about? How about the Giants, Tennessee and Indianapolis? Daunting schedule there.
That is two out of the four that the Browns play. The other three (2+3=5, I know, I know, but remember, one of those five in my scenario wins the West) are Kansas City, Oakland, and Tennessee.
The Chiefs already beat the Browns...we don't want to finish tied with Kansas City any more than we want to finish tied with the Jets. So Go Chiefs -- win your division and make yourselves moot in this discussion.
Let's say K.C. does win the West (although after that performance yesterday in Denver, that isn't looking really promising). Now we are left with two teams: the Tennessee Titans and the Oakland Raiders, neither of which plays Cleveland this year.
Right now Oakland is 3-2 in the conference, and both Cleveland and Tennessee are 2-4 in the conference. Ergo, if we "catch the Titans" -- they will have to (in my scenario) have a worse conference record than the Browns.
Which leaves the Raiders.
In the conference, Oakland has the Steelers, the Dolphins, the Chargers, the Jaguars, the Broncos, the Colts and the Chiefs. Do you see two conference losses in that gauntlet? Yes, so do I.
And of course, in my above scenarios, any of the 5-4 teams that finish 9-7 finish behind the Browns.
And there we have it. Call it self-therapy if you will. Call it dreaming. Call it ridiculous or a juvenile hope.
I really don't mind, because, you see, I have managed to find a way to wash away the bitterness of yesterday, and a reason to look forward with great eagerness to the Jacksonville game next weekend -- as, perhaps, the first step toward a miracle.
Top Five? Maybe it will come down to five possible scenarios somewhere around Week Sixteen. Or maybe this was just a Top Two...and we have not even considered that Denver could run the table and finish 10-6 as well and win the West, or maybe the Chargers will take it and K.C. is in the wild card mix and... -- oh the humanity! But I did not want to overwhelm anyone just yet (including myself).
Either way, I hope that somewhere in all these words, you saw something that said to you "Hey, we can do this!"