BEREA, Ohio -- The win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday went the way almost all of Cleveland’s eight victories have gone this season. Facing one of the worst teams in the league, the Browns came through with enough winning plays in the fourth quarter to salt away a narrow victory.
On the one hand, the Browns have rolled to 8-3 -- their best record through 11 games since 1994 -- putting them in prime position to finally snap the NFL’s longest playoff drought of 18 years.
On the other, they’ve reached this point with the benefit of the third-easiest schedule in the league to date, according to the ESPN Football Power Index. In fact, the Browns have no wins over anyone ranked in the FPI top 10. They own only one victory -- over the Indianapolis Colts -- of anyone in the top 15. And they boast just two wins -- the Colts and Houston Texans -- against opponents ranked in the top 20.
As Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders pointed out, the Browns are rated as the worst 8-3 team in DVOA history by a significant margin.
Browns worst 8-3 team in NFL historypic.twitter.com/3qqq09p— Football Outsiders (@FO_ASchatz) Dec. 1, 2020
Of course, none of that will ultimately matter, should the Browns finally make the playoffs (and all 12 teams on Schatz’s list did exactly that).
Cleveland also has the opportunity to prove it’s much more than just good at beating bad opponents -- beginning Sunday at Tennessee (1 p.m. ET, CBS). The Titans, who reached the AFC Championship Game last year, are surging at the right time once again behind bruising running back Derrick Henry. Defeating Tennessee for a signature win would give the Browns the momentum and the confidence they will need going into a potential playoff matchup -- while sending a message to the rest of the AFC they might not be such an easy out in the first round of the playoffs, should they get there.
“I think it will help us out a lot -- confidence is major,” said Browns wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge. “I don’t look at the Titans as a super team -- they can get beat like anybody else. We go into this game expecting to win and we’re expecting to do our thing. I see this team going deep into playoffs, as far as we can go. No one can stop us, but us. That’s how we look at it. That’s how we are going to keep looking at it. As long as we play our game, we can beat anybody.”
The Browns are about to discover whether they can back up such talk on the field. In their two big stage appearances so far, they were run out of the stadium. In the opener in Baltimore, the Ravens hammered Cleveland, 38-6. Then in Week 6 at Pittsburgh, the Steelers routed the Browns, 38-7. Neither result was in doubt after halftime, either.
Still, Cleveland has bounced back from those setbacks, despite multiple key starters missing games, including wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (out for the year with a knee injury), running back Nick Chubb (who missed four games with a knee injury), guard Wyatt Teller (who missed three games with a calf injury), cornerback Denzel Ward (week-to-week with a calf injury) and defensive end Myles Garrett, who just this week was activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list after sitting two games.
The Browns have won four of their past five games since the Pittsburgh defeat, and their last three in a row. They’ll soon get another shot at home against their two AFC North rivals, too, first against the Ravens on Monday Night Football Dec. 14, then in the regular-season finale vs. the Steelers.
Those games figure to reveal a lot about just how good these Browns are. But first, so should this weekend’s trip to Tennessee.
The Browns and Titans might have the same record. The Titans, however, are 11th in the FPI. They have the fourth-best offense in the league. And they have a playoff pedigree. Cleveland, meanwhile, only has one victory over a team with a winning record -- the Colts, whom Tennessee just destroyed 45-26 Sunday.
Either way, the Browns, who ignominiously won just four games total from 2015-17, have already come a long way this season -- easy schedule or not.
They can take another big step forward on Sunday.
“We’re playing well,” Teller said. “See if we can keep on playing well and play up to our competition and win some games here down the road.”