CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Browns' playoff hopes aren't dead just yet.
But they are certainly on life support.
After bouncing back from a 2-6 start to the season with a three-game winning streak, the Browns' path to ending their 16-year postseason drought began to come into focus as December approached. That vision, however, got a bit blurrier on Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers handed Cleveland a 20-13 loss at Heinz Field.
Officially, the Browns haven't been eliminated from postseason contention and plenty can change between now and the end of the season. But it's also clear that Cleveland is facing an uphill battle and will no need shortage of help if it's going to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season.
Where do the Browns stand and what kind of help do they need? It's complicated, to say the least. With that in mind, let's take a look at where Cleveland currently stands in the 2019 AFC Playoff race.
It's been 30 years since the Browns last won a division title, beating out the Houston Oilers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals to win what at the time was known as the AFC Central.
As of this past Sunday, Cleveland's division championship drought will extend to a 31st season.
The Browns' loss to the Steelers coupled with the Ravens' win over the San Francisco 49ers dropped Cleveland to five games back of Baltimore in the AFC North standings. With only four games left in the season -- including one between the Browns and Ravens on Dec. 22 -- Cleveland has officially been eliminated from contention for a division crown.
The Steelers, meanwhile, find themselves three games behind the Ravens, who they just so happen to face in the final week of the regular season. But with the way Baltimore -- which hasn't lost since its Week 4 defeat to the Browns -- has been playing lately, it seems like a safe assumption that the Ravens will have the division locked up by then.
AFC Wild Card
With winning the AFC North out of the question, the only way for the Browns to make the playoffs this season would be to secure one of the conference's two Wild Card spots. Currently, it's the Bills and Steelers who sit atop the AFC Wild Card standings, which currently look like this:
- Buffalo Bills 9-3
- Pittsburgh Steelers 7-5
- Tennessee Titans 7-5
- Oakland Raiders 6-6
- Indianapolis Colts 6-6
- Cleveland Browns 5-7
While the Browns own a head-to-head tiebreaker vs. the Bills, Buffalo's four-game lead with four weeks will likely be insurmountable. Cleveland would need to win out and the Bills will need to lose out to bring that tiebreaker into effect, meaning that Buffalo's next win (or the Browns' next loss) would clinch the Bills finishing ahead of Cleveland in the AFC Wild Card Race.
While the Browns are currently two games behind the Steelers, they could theoretically own the tiebreaker vs. Pittsburgh depending on how the rest of the season plays out. Three of the injury-plagued Steelers' final four games will come on the road and their one home game will be a primetime matchup against the surging Bills.
In order for the Browns to catch Pittsburgh in the standings and potentially bring a conference record or common opponents tiebreaker into play, one of the following outcomes in the final four weeks would need to occur:
- Steelers go 2-2 (or worse), Browns go 4-0
- Steelers go 1-3 (or worse), Browns go 3-1 (or better)
- Steelers go 0-4, Browns go 0-2 (or better)
The tougher out for Cleveland, however, may be the Titans, who own their own head-to-head tiebreaker over the Browns. That means Cleveland needs to finish at least a full game ahead of Tennessee in the standings, which would require one of the following outcomes to take place:
- Titans go 1-3 (or worse), Browns go 4-0
- Titans go 0-4, Browns go 3-1 (or better)
For what it's worth, Tennessee possesses the most difficult remaining schedule in the NFL with games against the Raiders, Texans (twice) and Saints). But it's also worth noting that the Titans have quietly become one of the NFL's hottest teams, having won five of their past six games.
Here are the four games remaining on the Browns' 2019 schedule:
- 12/8 vs. Bengals (1-11)
- 12/15 at Cardinals (3-8-1)
- 12/22 vs. Ravens (10-2)
- 12/29 at Bengals (1-11)
All things considered, the Browns will likely be favored to win three of their final four games, with the Dec. 22 matchup with the Ravens in Cleveland being the lone exception. Given the realities of the AFC Wild Card race, Cleveland likely can't afford another loss this season and even going 4-0 will still leave their fate in the hands of the conference's other contenders.