A not-so-funny thing has happened to the Cleveland Browns on the way to their presumed (by some) coronation as the kings of the AFC North.
The AFC North is not cooperating.
That fact was made abundantly clear Sunday when the Cincinnati Bengals rode into Baltimore and methodically de-clawed the Ravens 41-17 in a game that didn’t seem that close.
While the Bengals were taking the Ravens’ lunch money, the Browns started Week 7 last Thursday by barely squeezing past a mediocre Denver team 17-14.
The Browns are 4-3, a game behind the 5-2 Bengals and Ravens. But Cleveland has yet to beat a good team, or even a team with a winning record. The Browns’ four wins have come against Houston (1-6), Chicago (3-4), Minnesota (3-3) and Denver (3-4).
In their three losses, to Kansas City – in Week 1, when everyone still thought the Chiefs were good – the Los Angeles Chargers, and Arizona Cardinals, the Browns’ rebuilt and thought-to-be-elite defense gave up a combined 117 points.
The Browns’ meager +8 point differential ranks in the bottom half of the AFC, and well behind AFC North bullies Cincinnati (+61) and Baltimore (+23). Only six teams in the AFC have allowed more points than the 165 allowed by the Browns, although five AFC teams have played one less game than the Browns.
The Browns have allowed the most points in the AFC North. The Steelers have only played five games, but, having allowed 33 fewer points than Cleveland, even if Pittsburgh had played a seventh game chances are the Steelers would still have allowed fewer points than the Browns.
The elephant in the room, of course is that probably no team in the NFL has been more riddled by injuries than the Browns, who at one point last week listed 19 players on their injured list. That included the team’s two top running backs, two starting offensive tackles, it’s two best receivers, its center, and quarterback Baker Mayfield.
With the exception of its first game of the year, in each of its other games thus far, the Browns have been missing at least two or three starters, sometimes even more. If and when the Browns get everyone back healthy in the same week – and that’s a big “If” – perhaps only then can this team be fairly judged.
On the other hand, injuries are a part of the NFL. The teams that have the fewest injuries, and the teams best equipped to play through the ones they have, tend to be the last teams standing at the end of each season.
The Browns, however, are not entirely devoid of good fortune so far this year. If there is a silver lining to all the injuries, it’s that they have occurred before the Browns have played any divisional games. None of Cleveland’s first seven games were against AFC North rivals.
That’s about to change, however. Sunday the Browns will play their first divisional game, when they host the Steelers. Six of Cleveland’s 10 remaining games will be against divisional foes, including two games each vs. Cincinnati and Baltimore, who so far look like the class of the division.
The sheer volume of the Browns’ injuries, however, almost guarantees that the team will play several division games while missing some key players. The key-est player there, for the moment, is quarterback Baker Mayfield, who sat out last week’s win over Denver due to a torn labrum and broken bone in his left shoulder.
Mayfield, a gamer almost to a fault, vows to return to the lineup as soon as possible, so his status could be a week-to-week scenario the rest of the way. His torn labrum can’t be repaired without season-ending surgery. So the Browns may have to come to terms with the possibility that if they are going to win their first divisional title in 32 years, it will have to be done with Mayfield and his backup Case Keenum sharing the quarterback role.
Because each time Mayfield returns, he’s theoretically just one sack or scramble away from another barking labrum.
Lightning rod receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is trying to play through a sore shoulder, which understandably makes him a little jittery on crossing patterns over the middle. Getting back the best running back tandem in the league, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, would also be a plus. Both are sidelined with a strained calf. The defense has been hampered by injuries as well, in particular at linebacker and in the secondary.
Injuries, of course, are unwelcome anytime during the season, but now as the Browns move into the meat of their schedule, with four daunting challenges looming with a combined four games still to be played against Baltimore and Cincinnati, injuries could be Cleveland’s biggest enemy.
The AFC North is up for grabs, but teams with players grabbing hamstrings need not apply.