The Ravens, Titans, and Texans did not exist yet, and the Jaguars and Panthers were both in their first years of existence. Since then, three of those five teams have appeared in the Super Bowl; all five have made multiple postseason appearances, but the Browns, meanwhile, have been to the playoffs only once.
Quite clearly, the Browns and their fans have been waiting a long time for the type of success the 2014 squad is having. At 6-3 last week, the Browns were surprisingly atop the only division in football with no teams with a losing record; now 6-4, they are at the bottom, but still very much alive in the division race. Cleveland has won two of their three division games (one against Cincinnati, the other against Pittsburgh, against whom they have also lost once).
Is Cleveland the best team in the AFC North? The AFC North has been dominated by everyone but Cleveland at some point or another over the past 20 years, and nobody expected Cleveland to compete this year either. How are they doing it?
Quarterback Brian Hoyer is a big part of it. He is not a guy you want on your fantasy team, but in reality, Hoyer has guided a talent-deficient Cleveland offense to six wins with his 11-to-5 TD-to-pick ratio. Meanwhile, the likewise starless defense has somehow held four of their last six opponents to less than 18 points.
Cleveland has done all of this without Josh Gordon, who is unquestionably one of the league’s rising stars at wide receiver (if he can stay out of trouble off the field). Furthermore, the Browns lost Alex Mack—perhaps the league’s best center—in week five against Pittsburgh, and have been without playmaking tight end Jordan Cameron for most of the season due to lingering concussion symptoms. Mack is gone for the season, much to the detriment of Cleveland’s running game, but Gordon and Cameron are expected to return soon, giving Hoyer some lethal weaponry in the passing game. It could be enough for Cleveland to run away with the AFC North, and finally, at long last, make the postseason again.
Even if Cleveland makes the playoffs, it is yet to be determined how they would stack up against the AFC’s powerhouses—the Broncos, the Patriots, and the Colts. So far, Cleveland has had a very favorable schedule—a schedule that has included Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Oakland, and Jacksonville. The most difficult opponent the Browns have met outside the AFC North is Houston. Luckily, it doesn’t get much more difficult down the stretch. Cleveland will host Indianapolis in week 14, but besides that, Cleveland’s schedule is rather advantageous.
It should not be too difficult a task for Cleveland to reach the postseason—especially with Gordon and Cameron returning to the offense—but only once they get there will it be seen if the Browns are, in any way, for real.