After 15 weeks of the season, the Cleveland Browns are 9-5 and have control of the 5th seed in the AFC. Jake Trotter from ESPN Cleveland reported that the Browns have an 88.9% to make the playoffs. This is great news considering year after year this team is on the outside looking in, praying a divisional rival or fellow AFC bottoms out to help them get in.
It's even more amazing they are in the thick of the playoff race considering the injuries. Under Kevin Stefanski, this team has been healthier but hasn’t seen the results in the win-loss column. What makes this team different? What makes them different is their ability to succeed in clutch moments.
Anyone from the expert analysts to the casual NFL fan will tell you that a team needs solid quarterback play to win. This year, the Browns are now on their fourth different starter. That statement alone would suggest a losing season but this team has won with every quarterback that started a game.
To go even further between the four quarterbacks there have been four fourth-quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives. In the prior three years under Stefanski, the Browns had the same total of fourth-quarter comebacks and one less game-winning drive.
Winning in the NFL is difficult and winning in Cleveland seems to be more difficult than it is for the average team. Year after year fans have seen this team lose close games, but not this year. In one score game this year the Browns are 6-2.
This is a wild statistic considering in the past two losing seasons they have only won seven out of the 19 games that ended in a one-score difference. Four of those six one-score wins came by the consistent leg of new kicker Dustin Hopkins. This is something we haven’t seen regularly since legend Phil Dawson was wearing the orange and brown.
It's not just special teams that have been clutch, but the defense has played exceptional ball all year, especially when holding a lead. Year after year fans have watched Cleveland blow late leads, the home opener vs the Jets come to most fans' minds, but that’s a thing of the past with this team. This defense is at its best against the passing game when the team is playing with a lead, only giving up a 53.6% completion percentage and a 71 passer rating. Not only are these the lowest completion percentage and passer rating the team has given up in four years, it's by a wide margin.
The most surprising unit that can close out games has to be the offense though. The defense was heavily bolstered roster-wise, adding tons of defensive line talent and depth as well as the secondary. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was hired and his love of pressure and man coverage was a perfect match for the talent here.
This unit has also stayed relatively healthy compared to the offensive side of the ball. If I told you at the beginning of the season that Nick Chubb and Deshaun Watson would be out for the year, along with three key starters on the offensive line, you wouldn’t think this group would even be able to score, let alone be 9-5 in playoff position. This year is the first time in three years under Stefanski the team has finished halves better than they started
To explain further, the passing offense for the first time in three years statistically has a better second and fourth quarter when compared to the first and third. In years past the passing attack would start strong with their scripted drives but would fail to adjust later in the half. Not this year as the passer rating for QBs has been an average of 8 points higher passer rating and has double the amount of passing TDs to finish out halves compared to how they’ve started.
It's easy to think this trend will continue further to finish the season considering QB Joe Flacco not only posted the first 300-yard passing game of the season, he did it back-to-back weeks. He’s the first Browns QB to do so since Baker Mayfield did it back in weeks 13 and 14 in 2020.
To summarize this team is very much different than any other Browns team we’ve seen since the franchise came back to Cleveland in 1999. Not only is the passing game the best it’s been since 2020, but the Browns have an elite defense and clutch special teams unit to put together a complimentary football team.
To win consistently in this league you need to be able to win on all three phases. Not only are the Browns doing that but they are doing it in clutch moments and without a laundry list of star players. This team still has three weeks to close the season out. With a playoff spot almost locked and a potential for a run at the AFC North divisional title, Browns fans finally have meaningful football again in December.