The Cleveland Browns are in the midst of their best season since Derek Anderson was under center, the housing bubble hadn't popped, and Barack Obama was only a senator from Illinois. The historically cursed franchise is 10-4 with an elite run game and former No. 1 overall selection Baker Mayfield is playing up to his potential as their leader and signal-caller. Unless something terrible happens, the Browns should be in the playoffs after a 13-year drought.
All season, the assumption was that the Browns' path to the playoffs would come in the form of a wild card berth. That is because the Pittsburgh Steelers led the AFC North by multiple games all season after going undefeated for 11 straight weeks. Last night, however, those very same Steelers lost to the bottom-feeding Cincinnati Bengals to drop to 11-3. Pittsburgh is in a tailspin and will have to pull themselves out of it by sheer force of will with no reinforcements coming this season in any form.
But as they say, one NFL team's misery is another NFL team's fortune. Or whatever. There are two weeks left in the season. The Browns and Steelers play each other in Week 17. If they enter the game with the same record, that Week 17 game could determine the AFC North champion, an unthinkable position for the Browns to be in as recently as three weeks ago.
How likely is it that Week 17 becomes a winner-take-all for the divisional crown? I would say it's quite likely indeed. The Steelers play the 10-4 Indianapolis Colts in Week 16. The Colts have one of the league's best defenses and are on a three-game win streak. Philip Rivers is comfortable and feeling good in Frank Reich's offense. It is hard to see the team that lost to Ryan Finley last night beating arguably the most well-rounded team in football.
The Browns, on the other hand, are playing the New York Jets. These Jets are coming off their first win of the season and sit at 1-13. Perhaps lightening will strike twice for Adam Gase and Co., but I really doubt it. Cleveland will win this game with ease.
That means both the Browns and Steelers will enter Week 17 with 11-4 records. It'll be winner-take-all, and perhaps even win-or-go-home depending on what happens with the wild card spots. Should Cleveland emerge victorious from that battle, it will be their first divisional title since 1989, when they won the AFC Central when that still existed. Nineteen eighty-nine! That's an absurdly long time to go without a divisional title. It's nearly beyond belief.
But it is true. It's an odd season for the Browns to exercise their demons with winning football, given real life demons lurk around every corner as the season marches on in the midst of a global pandemic, but they have their best opportunity to date to do so. And there's nothing better for us viewers than a Week 17 game with the division title on the line.