The Browns Remain Playoff Pretenders

Baker Mayfield.
Baker Mayfield. / Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Browns and Ravens engaged in a highly-televisable Monday Night Football contest that ended with the fan-friendly score of Ravens 47, Browns 42. But while some are calling this an "optimistic loss" and others are lauding the Browns' improvement this season, their underbelly remains soft and easily exposed against the better teams in the AFC. That makes them playoff pretenders, not contenders. At least not this year.

Sitting at 9-4, the Browns currently occupy the top Wild Card spot and would face the Titans, who they beat two weeks ago, if the playoffs started today. They're coming off back-to-back 40-point performances and they feature the No. 3 rushing attack in the NFL. Baker Mayfield is limiting his turnovers and Myles Garrett is a defensive MVP candidate.

That's the good news. There is bad news.

So far this year, the Browns have won six one-score games and beaten two opponents with a winning record (Colts, Titans). They are the only team currently in a playoff spot with a negative point differential (-20) -- yes, that includes Washington -- and they barely beat the bottom-feeding Texans, Eagles and Jaguars -- winning those three games by a combined 10 points.

Against the Ravens and Steelers, they're 0-3 and lost by the combined score of 123-55. Their defense has given up 30 or more points seven times, including in both of their last two games, and against the Titans, they gave up 28 points in the second half, nearly completing an incredible meltdown.

Beyond giving up 28.3 points per game overall, which is ranked 27th in the NFL, the Browns defense allows 363.1 yards per game (19th in the NFL) and allows teams to score touchdowns on 64 percent of red-zone possessions (23rd). They're getting equally gashed on the rush (114.1 per game) as they are through the air (249). The only reason things aren't worse is because they've forced 20 turnovers this year (T-7). Those are not playoff contender stats.

The flip side to that argument is obvious. The Browns are one of the best rushing teams in the NFL and strong rushing attacks win in the playoffs. Garrett is arguably the best pass rusher in the NFL and getting pressure on the quarterback is a huge key to winning in the playoffs. They beat the Titans, who made the AFC Championship last year, and just stood toe-to-toe with the Ravens. All fair points. But if you look at the top teams in the AFC they could have to face in the first round of the playoffs, all have the firepower to torch the Browns' weak defense.

The current top-seeded Chiefs, I mean, do I even need to tell you they're the No. 1 passing offense and No. 2 scoring offense? The third-seeded Bills aren't far behind at No. 3 and No. 9 in the same stats. The second-seeded Steelers already hung 38 on the Browns in Cleveland and I already explained what happened with the fourth-seeded Titans in the second half against the Browns. Below the Browns you have the Colts and Dolphins, who are built more on defense than offense, but the only way Cleveland plays them in the playoffs is in the AFC Championship, which isn't going to happen.

So that leaves the Browns with an opening-round game on the road against either the Chiefs, Titans, Bills or Steelers, with the most likely opponent being the Titans or Bills. It will be the first playoff game for the Browns since 2002, which of course makes it the first playoff game for core players like Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb and Garrett. The Bills and Titans were both in the playoffs last year. Experience matters when it's win-or-go-home.

The Browns have taken great strides this year and are positioning themselves for a future where they are true contenders. To get there, they need to shore up the defense and become more consistent passing on offense. For now, it's worth celebrating the progress they made and the likely playoff game that awaits. But if you think they're true playoff contenders primed for a deep run in January, think again.