Before we start printing playoff tickets, let’s just bask in the glow of the Browns’ 34-14 beat-down of the Patriots yesterday, and then let’s slowwww dowwwnnnn on the prognostication. I say this because, while (as I’m about to show you) the Browns’ schedule is about to let up quite a bit, while we can look ahead at the schedule, we can’t start chalking up wins for games six weeks from now. So, guy-who-called-in-to-WTAM-on-my-way-home-and-predicted-a-10-6-finish, perhaps you might want to sleep on that for just a bit. This team is still in the “let’s look for improvement game-to-game” phase of their development, in my opinion. (So, get your “HYPOCRITE!” cannon ready, as I spend the rest of this post prognosticating.)
But, that’s not to say there’s not some reason for optimism. Back at the beginning of September, we here at WFNY had a Roundtable discussion about the Vegas line of 5.5 wins as the over/under mark. A lot of the guys took the over, but with humongous caveats attached to it.
For me, personally, there wasn’t a lot of optimism as to the likelihood of taking the over, and I set my expectations fairly low:
I would love to take the over, but the schedule looks very daunting. I think the first two weeks are winnable games, but a gauntlet of Baltimore, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Pittsburgh (with Big Ben), New Orleans, New England, and the Jets could have the Browns staring at 2-7 or even 1-8.
Well, the good news is that through nine games they will be at least 3-6, and possibly 4-5 if they can keep this momentum going against the Jets on Sunday. But, let’s keep moving:
The last three weeks of the season are the second leg of the division battles, but there are also some winnable games after that tough stretch. So, I’d love to take the over, but I’m having trouble finding six wins on the schedule right now. I guess at this point I’d settle for improvement, which would be 4-12 or 5-11 with a slew of competitive games as opposed to a bunch of 20-point losses (seriously, go back and look at the first nine games last year; average score: Opponents 25, Browns 8.7). If they can trim that margin and actually look like an NFL team most weeks, I’ll consider it improvement.
Clearly, the last part has come to fruition, and I couldn’t be happier about it. I’ve been a total fence-sitter on Eric Mangini’s tenure with the Browns: you may recall that I didn’t advocate firing him last year under the “you have to give a guy two years” argument, but also wouldn’t have thrown my hands up if new president Mike Holmgren had showed Mangini the door in January, either. You could argue that, had the Browns been able to close in a few games (TB, KC, Baltimore, Atlanta), they could be 7-1. Not likely, but you could make the argument (I mean, I think I just did, sorta). So, improvement? CHECK.
But, here’s the most important thing: the “toughest” part of the schedule is almost over. Consider that, after the Jets (6-2) this coming Sunday, the schedule for the following five weeks looks like:
November 21 – @Jacksonville (4-4)
November 28 – vs. Carolina (1-7)
December 5 – @Miami (4-4)
December 12 – @Buffalo (0-8)
December 19 – @Cincinnati (2-5)
Jets game aside, can the Browns win three of those games? Four? Five?? One would certainly think they could win three, and you could make a solid case before each game for the Browns being able to win any and all of them, if they can keep playing the way they’ve been playing these past two games. Of course, you can’t factor in injuries, weather, the fact that four of them are on the road, or DA somehow showing up in Buffalo and completing only two passes. OK, scratch that last one.
So, let’s break it down a bit. It’s hard to see a scenario in which Rex Ryan and the Jets come to Cleveland and aren’t ready to play. Add in the Braylon circus, and the Browns all of a sudden playing with a gigantic chip on their shoulder, and this game has the makings of a very good one if the Browns continue to execute. Given what we’ve seen from the Browns in the past two games combined with the Jets’ last two games (a stinker shut-out loss to Green Bay, and a mad dash complete with some Les-Miles-style clock management from Detroit to sneak into OT and win against the Lions), anything is certainly possible.
@Jacksonville? The Browns have won their last two against a very mediocre Jags team. It’s a road game, and the Browns won’t have the advantage of home field chilliness that sucked the life out of the Jags players last season. Even still, the Jags are lousy passing (the Browns’ defensive weakness), good at running (the Browns’ strength on defense), and HORRIBLE on defense: 28th vs. the pass and 22nd vs. the run. So, really: is there anything about this Jags team that makes you think the Browns don’t have a better-than-average chance of winning that game?
vs. Carolina? They look awful. Just, awful. They’ve scored 88 points in eight games (11.0 ppg), and have allowed 184 points (23.0). Their offense is garbage: last in the league in passing, and 26th in rushing. They’re 25th in rushing defense, allowing almost 125 yards per game. Tell me a scenario in which this current Browns team—playing at home—isn’t the favorite in this game.
@Miami? The Dolphins are a strange team. They’re 4-1 on the road, and 0-3 at home. This game is in Florida. They’re middle-of-the-road on both offense and defense. They’ve beaten Green Bay on the road, should have beaten Pittsburgh at home, and Minnesota and Cincinnati on the road, but struggled to beat a BAD Buffalo team, got smoked back-to-back at home by both the Jets and Patriots, and lost fairly convincingly to Baltimore. The point? Other than Green Bay and what should have been a win against the Steelers, it’s hard to point to a game against a good team in which the Dolphins looked “good”. Call this one a toss up, most definitely.
@Buffalo? Seriously? Do we even need to discuss this? Keep DA away from this game, and I can’t see a realistic scenario (assuming health) in which the Browns shouldn’t be the favorites.
@Cincinnati? Well, the Browns already beat this team once, and the Bengals are a flaming car wreck right now, though in fairness their passing game is still the strength of their team (and our defensive weakness). But, the Bengals’ defense is trash right now compared to the unit from last season: 18th vs. the pass and 23rd vs. the run. If Peyton Hillis and company are healthy, it’s hard to see a scenario where the Browns can’t run the ball against Cincinnati and keep the Bengals’ passing game on the sidelines. This one should be in the toss-up category, but I can make a solid argument for the Browns being favored in this game.
So, what does all of this mean? The next six games break out like this: The Browns are probably favored in two or three of those games (Jags? Carolina, Buffalo), two or three are toss-ups (Jags? Dolphins, Cincy), and one is tough (Jets). I see at least four wins there, which puts the Browns squarely at seven before factoring in all of the toss-ups.
The point, here, is that after this coming week, the schedule sets up for five winnable games in a row for the Browns. I’m not saying they’ll “definitely” get to .500 or anything like that, but what I am saying is that the sixth win to get over the 5.5 over/under bar is suddenly looking pretty reachable, and in breaking down the schedule a .500 finish is certainly something that could be legitimately argued for.
And, even though they’re still only halfway through 2010, all of a sudden, the Browns look like a potential 2011 playoff team if things keep building the way they have over the last 12 games.
Yep, I just said it.