The NFL is built off of quick turnarounds. You will always have your staples like the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers – teams that are at least in the playoff hunt every year. But the dream of going from worst to first remains prevalent.
Going into 2017, that dream lives on. A year ago we saw the Atlanta Falcons reach the Super Bowl following three straight seasons out of the playoffs. The New York Giants were back in the playoff picture after sitting out of the playoffs even longer (4 years).
One of the best stories of 2016 ended up being the Oakland Raiders, who snapped a ridiculous 13-year playoff drought with a 12-4 run. The Dallas Cowboys gave us the best one-year 180 last year, too, with the ‘Boys going from 4-12 in 2015 to 13-3 in 2016.
What Dallas did last year isn’t done every year, but each new season breathes new life into even the most dormant NFL franchises. Could that be the case with the lowly Cleveland Browns? It’s not the NFL betting opportunity everyone will be jumping at, but it surprisingly shouldn’t be one we quickly dismiss, either.
Betting on the Browns
It feels like a reach at first, to be sure. The Browns waited until week 16 to get their one win last year and they remain the fourth best team on paper in the competitive AFC North.
Still, the Browns got visibly better in the draft and via free agency this offseason and there might be just enough ammo to buy them as a playoff threat.
The odds that work against them are one big reason we need to at least entertain the notion. Over at Topbet.eu, the Browns carry staggering +2000 odds for the “yes” side of that argument. It’s an easy -5000 if you want to bet against them, but even a $100 bet would return $2k if the Browns defied logic and made a run to the playoffs.
Why it Could Happen
The odds remain heavily stacked against the Browns to make the playoffs, but the playability here is off the charts. We don’t need the Browns to go win the Super Bowl or even claim their division, either. They just need to get in the playoffs.
Doing so should prove to be difficult, but there could be enough reasons to at least support a flier bet. Here’s our favorite five:
The Defense Got Better
The biggest factor working in Cleveland’s favor is an improved defense. It didn’t take much, as the Browns were 30th in point allowed and 31st in yardage allowed per game in 2016. Still, the Browns traded for Jamie Collins last year and held onto him and drafted well by bringing in stud pass rusher Myles Garrett and versatile defensive back Jabrill Peppers.
Cleveland already had some talent in place on defense, too. Defensive tackle Danny Shelton could still morph into a beast in the middle of their defensive line, Joe Haden potentially can be a shutdown corner on one side of the field and also nabbed a steal in cornerback Jamar Taylor last year.
The Browns won’t go from arguably the worst defense to one of the best over night, but the pieces are there for serious progress.
Cleveland Has an Offensive Line
Games can be won or lost in the trenches and the Cleveland brass took that line of thinking to heart by stabilizing a once shaky offensive line. Joe Thomas was already an elite anchor for this o-line for years, but he was largely on his own.
The Browns made big moves to make sure that would no longer be the case, as they brought in the versatile J.C. Tretter to man the middle of their O-line, stole Kevin Zeitler from the rival Bengals and they handed Joel Bitonio a huge deal to stay on as the team’s stable left guard. Early picks in the last two drafts – Shon Coleman and Cameron Erving – are slated to battle it out for the right tackle spot.
Individually, these moves give the Browns a legit answer at every spot of their o-line. Collectively, they just might boost the Browns enough to be competent in both pass protection and run-blocking. In fact, if all goes well, this line might even be elite.
The Browns Want to Run
One reason why the Browns made sure to wisely invest in a strong offensive line is their plan to pound the rock in 2017. In a black and blue division like the AFC North, it only makes sense to mask their biggest weakness (quarterback) and also make tough defenses pay with a physical ground game.
Cleveland just might have the pieces necessary to make that move in 2017. They’ve built up a physical and talented O-line, but those meaty blockers also have solid talent working behind them in the physical Isaiah Crowell and the explosive Duke Johnson.
The Browns haven’t properly utilized either of their top rushers yet, but with a stronger o-line in place and a commitment to running the football, that should happen this year.
A stronger, more consistent rushing attack will do two huge things for the Browns; take pressure off of a weak passing attack and also keep their defense fresh.
They Have Options Under Center
While Cleveland’s passing game is admittedly a weakness, it’s tough to deny they’re trending in the right direction. It was easy to make jokes about their offseason trade for Brock Osweiler, but he’s probably the best, most stable passer they’ve had since Brian Hoyer.
Osweiler won’t get them to a Super Bowl, but he helped the Texans make the playoffs last year and showed promise in Denver two seasons ago. It’s not totally crazy to imagine him winning a job that is said to be “his to lose” and then finding a way to thrive.
Thrive might be putting it strongly, but even if Osweiler fails, the Browns have two youngsters to hand the offense over to. Cody Kessler got some valuable starts as a rookie last year and could always morph into the answer, while Deshone Kizer could easily end up being the franchise’s answer under center.
Will any of these quarterbacks for sure cure what ails the Browns in the air? No, not for certain. But the Browns have actual options here, which leaves the door cracked open to them finding some success in the passing game in 2017.
The AFC North Isn’t As Good As We Think
Lastly, we need to stop acting like the AFC North is a division stacked with elite teams. Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers made it to the AFC title game last year and are a viable title contender, but who else are we to be fearful of here?
Neither the Ravens or Bengals have been overly reliable the past two years, while both bottomed out and missed the playoffs last year. Both teams have solid coaching and enough balance to make a run at the playoffs, but both could also just as easily further regress in 2017.
Cleveland is the weakest of the bunch on paper, but if they start snowballing some of these individual working points, they just might start looking like a mild threat.
The beauty is the Browns don’t need to be elite to make the playoffs. They just need to hang around and be slightly better than the Ravens and Bengals – both of which struggled to be anything more than mediocre in 2016.