CLEVELAND — A season that began with so much hope and promise has instead ended with bitter, agonizing disappointment.
With wins by both the Bengals and Chargers on Sunday, the Browns have officially been eliminated from playoff contention before tomorrow's "Monday Night Football" matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cincinnati clinched the AFC North championship with a comeback 34-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, while Los Angeles dealt the final blow to Cleveland's slim wild-card hopes by beating the Denver Broncos 34-13.
When the weekend began, the Browns' easiest path back to the postseason was through the AFC North, and had Cincinnati lost to KC and Baltimore fell in either of its final two games, all Cleveland would've had to do was win its last two to capture its first division title since 1989. Things appeared to be going to plan early Sunday, when the Los Angeles Rams beat the Ravens 20-19 on a late touchdown by (ironically) Odell Beckham Jr.
But things went south in a hurry after the Chiefs blew a 28-14 lead at Paul Brown Stadium. With the game tied at 31, Ja'Marr Chase's reception on third-and-27 put Cincy in field goal range before head coach Zac Taylor inexplicably elected to go for it on fourth-and-goal from inside the 1. The Bengals were stopped ... twice, but Kansas City penalties on both attempts gave them a fresh set of downs and allowed them to run down the clock and allow Evan McPherson to nail a 20-yard field goal at the buzzer.
With the Bengals entrenched in first place, all eyes turned to the wild-card race, which was already a longshot with the Browns losing possible tiebreakers to the Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders, among other teams. Vegas blocked off yet another path by beating the Indianapolis Colts 23-20, and three hours later, LA capped off a dominating win over Denver to vanquish Cleveland for good.
At this point, all the Browns have left to play for is their second straight winning season (something they also haven't done since 1989) and eliminating the rival Steelers from the playoff race, who at 7-7-1 are still technically alive. Still, after coming into 2021 as a popular Super Bowl pick, most fans will no doubt see this season as a failure.