If the Cleveland Browns fail to make it to the postseason this year, does that mean their 11-win campaign in 2020 was a fluke?
After a Week 16 defeat at the hands of the New York Jets by a score of 23-16 in New Jersey last season, the Cleveland Browns dropped to 10-5. This put Cleveland between a rock and a hard place going into their Week 17 matchup at FirstEnergy Stadium against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. If the Browns won, that would set up the trilogy in the steel city. But if they lost, then the season would be over.
Cleveland would go on to win that Week 17 matchup off the shores of Lake Erie by a score of 24-22. This set up the trilogy fight between Cleveland and Pittsburgh in the AFC Wildcard in the Steel City. Going into that game, Cleveland had lost 17 consecutive games in Pittsburgh. But the Browns were able to overcome all the obstacles that were put in front of them, such as head coach Kevin Stefanski not being on the sideline due to Covid-19, to defeat the Steelers 48-37.
That win advanced Cleveland to the AFC Divisional Round for a matchup with quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the then-defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium.
The Browns magic carpet ride came to an end in Kansas City. The Chiefs got the win 22-17, although many people think that the margin of defeat would’ve been larger if Mahomes didn’t get injured.
After all of that success, fans and media members were heaping expectations on the Browns left and right. These expectations extended from winning the AFC North (they can still somehow achieve that goal if the dominoes fall their way) to making an appearance in the AFC Championship game.
After a heartbreaking 24-22 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Christmas Day at historic Lambeau Field in Week 16, the Browns dropped to 7-8 on the season. Unless they get a miracle where everything that needs to happen for them to win the division actually happens, it will result in another season where the Browns fail to meet expectations, just like the 2019 campaign and countless others.
Given what Cleveland did last season and where they’re at now, 2020 feels like a complete and total fluke. For more reasons than one, it feels like a fluke.
First of all, it feels like quarterback Baker Mayfield has reverted back to his 2019 form where he struggled to deal with the weight of the world being on his shoulders and all the expectations that accompanied that pressure. Part of the reason Mayfield struggled in that 2019 season is that there were multiple curious coaching decisions. An example would be the draw play against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday Night Football in Cleveland in Week 3.
Last season, there weren’t nearly as many coaching blunders. That’s because the Browns hired former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. Coach Stefanski brought in a new style of offense that fit the personnel of Cleveland. It took a couple of games for that offensive vision to come to fruition but eventually, it did. It made Stefanski look somewhat like a boy wonder.
This season, the boy wonder hasn’t evolved the offense. The Browns have gone out and done the exact same thing as last year. The problem with that is that teams watched film in the offseason and they studied what Cleveland did last season so the opponents made adjustments.
Unfortunately, the Browns haven’t tried to evolve their offense (which is something I’ve been calling for this season) at all and it’s hurt them throughout the season.
But there’s still a question that needs to be answered. If the Browns fail to reach the playoffs this season, does that mean last season was a fluke?
That’s a tough question to answer because you can look at it from multiple angles. But it feels like the answer is yes it would mean last season was a fluke. The primary reason is that the Browns had all of this success last season, and they went from being the hunter to the hunted.
Cleveland knew that their opponents would adjust their defensive game plans, but the Browns haven’t countered. Cleveland also hasn’t lived up to the expectations that were laid out for them this season.
Here’s the thing though, the Browns still have an opportunity to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke. All they have to do is beat Pittsburgh on MNF, then beat the Cincinnati Bengals next week in Cleveland, the Bengals have to lose against the Chiefs, and the Ravens have to lose against either the Rams or Steelers. If all of that happens, then the Browns will get to host a playoff game at Fist Energy Stadium as AFC North champions.
It’s highly unlikely, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.