NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 13: Are the Browns serious contenders?

The Browns (9-3) entered Sunday’s uber-important contest with the Titans (8-4) in Tennessee as a semi-fraudulent team (to some) that had beaten up on bad teams en route to a probable playoff spot that won’t become of anything (some thought).

At halftime, Cleveland surprisingly led Tennessee by a score of 38-7, before holding on for a 41-35 statement win that has many thinking differently of these Browns. What a difference a weeks makes.

So what do we make of this Browns team? Is talk of them as an AFC contender a knee-jerk reaction?

Sitting at 9-3, and in prime position for an AFC wild card spot — maybe the top, No. 5 wild card spot they hold now — Cleveland enters the final quarter of the regular season with a surging outside appreciation for what they’ve done, just weeks after most (including me) have discredited them as a somewhat-fraudulent, soon to be one-and-done wild card team.

Before their win on Sunday, they had played just four games against teams with winning records, going 1-3 in those contests with their last loss being an offensively-challenged 16-6 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders (7-5) at home before beginning their current four-game winning streak.

Baker Mayfield — 2,442 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 70.5 Total QBR — hasn’t been quite as good as his average-to-good season stat line suggests. He likely won’t eclipse 4,000 yards passing in an era in which it seems nearly every QB does each season, but with the Browns’ league-best rushing attack (157.8 yards per game) leading the way, he really doesn’t need to air it out for Cleveland to rack up wins.

Mayfield was phenomenal on Sunday, throwing for four first-half touchdowns to give the Browns a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Yes, the lack of a Titans pass rush, or maybe even competent defense, helped spur perhaps Mayfield’s greatest performance as a pro. But if this Browns team is to do any damage in the AFC postseason field, it will need Mayfield to capitalize on play-action passes downfield after their running game has been established. He did that on Sunday, ironically versus a team that works their offense the same way, except usually with better success with Ryan Tannehill finding the likes of A.J. Brown downfield after a fake hand-off to Derrick Henry.

The combination attack of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the ground behind a superb, remodeled offensive line has been the key to the Browns attack. Possible coach-of-the-year candidate Kevin Stefanski, 38, has brought a Mike Shanahan-style system to the Browns, employing a heavy amount of outside-zone running plays as their bread and butter, with play-action and bootleg passes as secondary options. These plays are designed to make the game easier for Mayfield as other offenses have done similarly for the likes of Tannehill, Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, Aaron Rodgers (to a degree, since he doesn’t really need the help) and Jared Goff — and for former Broncos QB Jake Plummer (2003-2006 in Denver), once upon a time.

 On defense, Myles Garrett (10.5 sacks, four forced fumbles) is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and the Browns’ defensive unit as a whole has been much improved.

Still, in the AFC, the Chiefs (11-1) are operating on a plane above the entire NFL. And despite their sluggish play of late, the Steelers (11-1) still look like the conference’s second best team. After that, the Bills (9-3) definitely look like the third best.

So where do the Browns fall into the mix after that?

The last few weeks has seen some weird results, much like the Browns win over the Titans. In the AFC South, the Titans and Colts (8-4) each traded dominant road wins over each other in the past month.

After the heavyweights in the AFC, it’s clear that there’s some unpredictability at play. The Browns finish the season with two winnable games (at Giants, at Jets) in New York, sandwiched in between two tough games (vs Ravens, vs Steelers) versus their AFC North rivals. If they beat Baltimore this weekend, it’s likely they’ll hang onto the conference’s No. 5 seed.

How would they fare in a wild card rematch in Tennessee? Or in Indianapolis? Or Buffalo? Their likely opponent would likely come from that pool if they are to be the conference’s top wild card. And they’re playing like they deserve that seed, as of late.

The truth is Cleveland is a bit limited with Baker Mayfield at the moment, but the former No. 1 overall pick has the talent to improve, and maybe Sunday’s win over Tennessee is the start of the that. But it’s likely this game is a bit of an aberration, and evidence of the ever-changing narratives of some of the good-not-great teams in the AFC after the likes of Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

Still, the Browns are certainly proving they’re not frauds. I’ve thrown that word around with them, so I suppose that’s an egg on my face, for now.

They have the recipe of a solid playoff team.

The Browns are well coached. They run the ball extremely well, which is a cold-weather, January must if you don’t have a top-tier QB (and they don’t). Their offensive line is much improved. And on defense, Myles Garrett is one of the best players in football.

Still, despite the Titans’ porous effort on Sunday (and their unpredictability, and their poor defense), it feels like they still remain the biggest threat to the Chiefs and Steelers, maybe even more so than the Bills.

Tennessee has no pass rush, they can’t stop the run, and at times, they seem to be laying duds on offense. But the Titans, who used their bruising formula to make the AFC Championship Game last season, still have the ingredients (Mike Vrabel, Derrick Henry, Ryan Tannehill, A.J. Brown, etc.) to a mark run this season.

As for the Browns, they too have some of the those ingredients, but have yet to prove their moxie in January. Could they be last year’s Titans? Now that’s not farfetched. But we’ll have to see it first.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-1) (Last week: 1). Is there any stopping them? Denver kept it close.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-1) (Last week: 2). They haven’t looked good the past few weeks, and the loss of Bud Dupree on defense is MASSIVE. But they’re still the second best team in the AFC.

3. New Orleans Saints (10-2) (Last week: 3). They’re fun with Taysom Hill, but to win the Super Bowl, they’ll need Drew Brees back for what is likely the last few games of his illustrious career.

4. Buffalo Bills (9-3) (Last week: 5). That was a solid win in San Francisco. The 49ers are feisty, even in their injury-derailed season. Still, the Bills must get it together on defense if they are to be a threat to Kansas City.

5. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 6). Let’s not forget about how great Aaron Rodgers has been this season. There’s a chance they snag the NFC’s No. 1 seed if they can win out. The Saints have some tough games to finish out their year.

6. Los Angeles Rams (8-4) (Last week: 10). They’re getting better by the week. Can they keep it going versus the Patriots on Thursday?

7. Cleveland Browns (9-3) (Last week: 13). Are the Browns for real? We explained above. Yes and no from me. One thing I didn’t mention earlier — they have a negative-15 point differential, which is virtually unheard of for a 9-3 team. That’s worse than teams like Washington (5-7) and San Francisco (5-7) with losing records. Still, they have the recipe for a well-stocked January team, as long as Mayfield doesn’t revert to his previous form of ineptitude.

8. Tennessee Titans (8-4) (Last week: 4). They’ve been Jekyll and Hyde recently but I still think they’re a real threat to the AFC’s top teams, much like last January.

9. Indianapolis Colts (8-4) (Last week: 8). They easily could have lost in Houston, but they pulled out yet another win. They have some tough games to finish out their season.

10. Seattle Seahawks (8-4) (Last week: 8). They are in trouble, but I trust Russell Wilson to pull them up a level here soon. They’ll get it going again on offense.

11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5) (Last week: 11). The Bucs return from their late-season bye week in gut check mode. Will they finally get it going for a string of games?

12. Miami Dolphins (8-4) (Last week: 12). They don’t look right on offense, but their defense remains solid. They’ll be put to the test this week versus the Chiefs.

13. Baltimore Ravens (6-5) (Last week: 10). Will the Ravens take advantage of their easy schedule to make the postseason?

14. Minnesota Vikings (6-6) (Last week: 14). Can they outpace the Cardinals and others for the last playoff spot? Their remaining schedule includes a game in New Orleans and a game in Tampa Bay this Sunday. They may need to win one of those to get in.

15. New England Patriots (6-6) (Last week: NR). That 45-0 win over the Chargers felt like a Tom Brady-era, late-season road beatdown that usually sparked a Super Bowl run. That’s not likely the case this year, but if the Pats can beat the Rams on Thursday to compete the LA sweep, they’re right back in the thick of the playoff picture. Their season comes down to their last four games. They likely need to win all four to make the playoffs.

16. Las Vegas Raiders (7-5) (Last week: 16). They were lucky to win in New York over the Jets (0-12). They really shouldn’t have won. Ironically, unless they’re playing the Chiefs, they haven’t looked that good, save for a game or two, here and there.

Next up: Arizona, Houston, N.Y. Giants, Washington, San Francisco

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