Winning The Division May Be More Doable Than A Wild Card Berth For The Browns

Kevin Stefanski did not stray from his 'We got outcoached' mantra when rehashing the 45-7 defeat to the Patriots. (Cleveland Browns)

Kevin Stefanski did not stray from his 'We got outcoached' mantra when rehashing the 45-7 defeat to the Patriots. (Cleveland Browns)

Winning the division may be more doable than a wild card berth for the Browns

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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for and 850 ESPN Cleveland.

Second thoughts on Browns’ 45-7 loss to New England Patriots … 

1. It’s hard to see a path to the playoffs for the Browns after their worst loss in the Kevin Stefanski era, but it exists. Currently seeded 11th in the AFC, a wild-card berth may be out of the question because they lose tie-breakers to the Chiefs, Chargers and Patriots. The straighter path is to claim the AFC North title. That will require sweeping the remaining four division games on the schedule. That would put the Browns at nine wins not including games against the Lions, Raiders and Packers. Even if they win just one of those, a 10-7 overall record – with a 5-1 mark in the division – could hold up as good enough for their first AFC North title. Look at the remaining schedules of each AFC North team (non-division games in boldface). The Browns have the easiest schedule outside the division. All they have to do is take care of business and sweep their rivals. Easy? Of course not. Doable? Yes.

* Baltimore (6-3): Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Green Bay, Cincinnati, Rams, Pittsburgh.

* Pittsburgh (5-3-1): Chargers, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Minnesota, Tennessee, Kansas City, Cleveland, Baltimore.

* Cincinnati (5-4): Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Chargers, San Francisco, Denver, Baltimore, Kansas City, Cleveland.

* Cleveland (5-5): Detroit, Baltimore, bye, Baltimore, Las Vegas, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati.

2. I liked what linebacker Anthony Walker had to say when asked if he thought a players-only meeting was in order to keep the season from careening off the tracks. “There’s a lot of talking we can do, but at end of day you have to do it,” he said. “We’re at that point, 5-5, seven games left … let’s play ball now. Nothing needs to be said. We all need to be better. We need to come in, lock in every day and understand that we’re in the playoffs now. Our playoffs just started earlier. We started now. We have to play every game like it’s a playoff game. Take every day like we’re preparing for a playoff game. No more talking. Let’s just go play ball and we’ll see where that leads us.”

3. The Browns’ inconsistency has been maddening. They beat the Bengals by 25 points and lost to the Patriots by 38 in back-to-back games. They’re not alone, however. Inconsistency has been the norm in the NFL this year. Here are a few back-to-back examples of some playoff-caliber teams: The Packers lost Game 1 to the Saints, 38-3, then won Game 2 over the Lions, 35-17. After the Saints slaughtered the Packers in Game 1, 38-3, they lost Game 2 to the Panthers, 26-7. The Ravens beat the Chargers in Game 6, 34-6, then lost to the Bengals in Game 7, 41-17. The Bills lost to the Jaguars in Game 9, 9-6, then beat the Jets in Game 10, 45-17. The Cowboys lost to the Broncos is Game 9, 30-16, then beat the Falcons in Game 10, 43-3. I’ve never seen such a topsy-turvy season. There is no dominant team. Why? I have a theory. So many players have missed games because of COVID-19 protocols and injuries, teams are digging deeper than ever into their practice squads each week. The season is being determined by 69-player rosters more than ever instead of the regular 53. Even the starters able to suit up on game days are missing more practices than ever because of injuries. Practice makes perfect and lack of practice makes for inconsistent play. Every team is dealing with disruptions in their regular lineups. As usual, the strongest will survive, but the war of attrition will weaken every team.

4. Myles Garrett’s post-game comments about the coaches not making adjustments on defense apparently stung Stefanski. To review, Garrett said after the loss to the Patriots, “Sometimes you’re on top of the hill and sometimes you get your ass kicked. So go back to the drawing board and see how we can get better, see how we can scheme better, see how we can make adjustments on the fly. I mean, because we never had a chance just because we didn’t make any adjustments on the sideline or when we had time to.” Asked to clarify, Garrett double-downed and said, “We didn’t make adjustments, as in they kept on scoring and we weren’t countering that. So, I mean, we need to be better.” On Monday, Stefanski responded, “As I mentioned [after the game], any time you have a game like that, there is a lot of frustration. I have spoken to Myles about that, and I will keep that conversation between Myles and myself.” But Stefanski didn’t disagree with Garrett’s assessment. “Again, you give up 45 and you score seven, we just did not have a good enough plan, we did not make enough adjustments and we did not play well enough. It is all the above when you get beat.”

5. I have no idea why the Browns stopped running D’Ernest Johnson after he energized the only scoring drive with 4 runs for 58 yards. After the Patriots tied the score at 7-7, the Browns ran, threw and threw an interception, which led to a 14-7 Patriots’ lead. Then they threw, threw, ran, threw, threw, threw and punted. Another Patriots touchdown and 21-7 lead made Baker Mayfield a sitting duck and took Johnson completely out of the game. “I would have to look at those … plays,” Stefanski said Monday. “I think we had some decent gains in the pass game. Ultimately, I think third down was where we did not come through.”

6. I also have no idea why defensive coordinator Joe Woods called off the dogs and played so much off coverage against rookie quarterback Mac Jones. After the success the cornerbacks had playing press man coverage in Cincinnati, Woods said he wanted to stay aggressive, though he would continue to mix press and off coverage. Then he reverted to the passive coverage against the Patriots’ pedestrian receivers and Jones destroyed it.