CLEVELAND (AP) — Barring unforeseen and illogical developments, the Cleveland Browns aren’t going to the playoffs.
It appears they are going down swinging, however.
Their ugly 13-3 victory Saturday over the Baltimore Ravens kept the Browns’ faint playoff pulse — ESPN’s playoff tracker gives them a 0.7% chance of qualifying — barely audible. Perhaps more importantly, his team’s effort was a positive sign for coach Kevin Stefanski, whose future was beginning to look bleak.
Stefanski’s third season has been especially challenging, given that he was without his star quarterback for 11 games, when Deshaun Watson’s league suspension for alleged sexual misconduct put the Browns (6-8) in a precarious spot.
And while he adeptly navigated the Browns through the Watson situation, his questionable play-calling and curious in-game decisions led to speculation that Stefanski might not be back next season.
But if owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam had any concerns about whether Stefanski had lost his locker room, they were eased with a performance against the Ravens (9-5) that showed the Browns remain all in for their coach and his staff.
This is the time of year when teams with no postseason hopes throw in the towel. The Browns are clinging to theirs.
Last week, Myles Garrett expressed confidence his teammates would keep scrapping in both a “spoiler” role and until they’re mathematically eliminated.
“It was never in doubt, the fight and the guys we had in this locker room,” Garrett said after the win Saturday. “I wasn’t worried about the heart they would bring to that field because I see it every single day. I know how much this means to them.
“I know our record is not where we want it to be, but we still have those guys who will play 100% and give everything towards the game they love.”
It’s highly possible that Cleveland’s coaching staff will undergo some change in the offseason. Both defensive coordinator Joe Woods and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer have been under scrutiny for weeks because their respective units have underachieved.
Stefanski, who took the Browns to the postseason in 2020 before going 8-9 last season, seems on solid ground. With upcoming games against New Orleans (5-9), Washington (7-6-1) and Pittsburgh (6-8), Cleveland can finish with a flourish.
Watson has shown steady improvement in his three games since being reinstated. The Stefanski-Watson partnership is at the core of Cleveland’s success moving forward, and as long as it’s healthy and growing, the Browns can dodge another turbulent offseason.
Then again, it wouldn’t be the Browns without some bumps.
With windy conditions making it tough to throw deep, the Browns turned to their running game, and it delivered.
After rushing for just 71 yards a week earlier at Cincinnati, Cleveland rolled up 143 on 33 attempts against the Ravens, who came in allowing just 81.2 and a league-low 55 since linebacker Roquan Smith’s arrival via trade in November.
Nick Chubb picked up 99 yards, the most given up by Baltimore in 2022.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Cleveland’s run defense was again awful as the Ravens picked up 198 yards, averaging 7.1 per carry.
Luckily for the Browns, Baltimore was missing star quarterback Lamar Jackson (knee) and coach John Harbaugh quizzically abandoned the run early in the fourth quarter with his team down only two scores.
Watson is trending upward after three games, which is vital for the future. But cornerback Denzel Ward’s crucial interception in the third quarter at the Cleveland 9 was the turning point with Baltimore driving.
Ward could have had a second pick but let it sail through his hands late in the game. Still, he is playing at a Pro Bowl level and worthy of the $100 million contract extension the Browns gave him in May.
Rookie kicker Cade York’s season is drifting further off target.
The fourth-round draft pick missed two more field-goal tries, making him 22 of 30 overall and 9 of 15 at FirstEnergy Stadium, where the conditions are among the league’s toughest.
Baltimore’s Justin Tucker, the most accurate kicker in league history, also missed a field goal and had one blocked.
York did make two kicks in a game where every point was critical, but his inaccuracy is a major concern.
Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney sustained a concussion in the first half. Stefanski intimated Clowney, who has only two sacks but has been solid overall, could miss extended time. … Safety John Johnson III bruised his thigh.
13.5 — Garrett’s sack total after picking up 1 1/2 against the Ravens. Garrett needs three sacks to break his single-season team record set last season.
A frost-bitten home finale on Christmas Eve against the Saints, who are still in the NFC playoff hunt and better bundle up, with temperatures expected to be in the low teens at kickoff.
Tom Withers, The Associated Press