Every NFL season brings with it outliers who far exceed expectations or disappoint miserably. With the futures odds set for the 2021-22 NFL season, we examine that broad range of possibilities for the Cleveland Browns.
When Last We Met
The Browns added Odell Beckham Jr. to pair with young QB Baker Mayfield in 2019 and created some genuine buzz. But, after a 6-10 season and underperforming its sportsbook expectations, it was beginning to seem like the Cleveland Browns were cursed. The Browns head coaching carousel went for another spin in 2019 as they fired Freddie Kitchens after just one season.
The Browns hired former Vikings offensive coordinator and then 37-year old Kevin Stefanski ahead of the 2020 season. Browns fans suffered through 17 miserable seasons but the 2020 season was a beacon of hope. The Browns did the seemingly impossible in 2020. No, they didn’t win a Super Bowl, but they did end the NFL’s longest active playoff drought, win a playoff game and found the coach to lead them forward.
Stefanski, who won the NFL Coach of the Year, led the Browns to an 11-5 record in a tough AFC North and secured the sixth seed in the AFC. The Browns overshot their expected win total of 8½, even with a -11 point differential, and were a solid team for betting online. It helped to have the third easiest schedule in the entire league but the Browns were still one of the darlings of the 2020 NFL season.
The highlight of the Browns season was back to back wins vs the Steelers. The Browns clinched the playoffs in Week 17 after the Steelers had already clinched the AFC North and rested a bunch of starters.
Then, the following weekend, the NFL betting lines listed the Browns as underdogs. However, Cleveland beat a full-strength Steelers team 48-37 in the Wild Card game. That set up a matchup with Super Bowl LIV Champions, Kansas City. The Browns narrowly fell to the Chiefs 22-17 but had an excellent season which raised the expectations for the future.
To Miss the Playoffs (+175)
The line has moved a bit in recent weeks, so the sportsbook is slightly less confident about Cleveland’s NFL playoff odds. Maybe that has more to do with how strong the Ravens are looking than any fault with the Browns.
The Ravens improved their offensive line with Alejandro Villanueva and Kevin Zeitler. Baltimore will also be hoping for immediate payoffs from their first round draft picks in WR Rashod Bateman and edge rusher Odafe Oweh. Baltimore finished 11-5 last season and it felt like a disappointment as former MVP Lamar Jackson didn’t play his best.
The Steelers posted a 12-4 record in 2020, winning the AFC North. While oddsmakers aren’t as confident about the Steelers’ chances to make the playoffs this season, Pittsburgh is always a tough opponent. So, a difficult AFC North is the Browns’ biggest barrier to making the playoffs.
More broadly, the AFC is an incredibly tough conference. 11-5 is what it took to clinch a playoff berth in 2020 and it could be similarly difficult this season. The Ravens, Bills, Chiefs, Titans and Colts are all excellent teams. The Dolphins, Patriots, Chargers and Steelers are all capable of sneaking in as well.
With no fewer than nine teams to compete against for playoff position, it is certainly possible the Browns miss the playoffs. Maybe the negative point differential in 2020 wasn’t a fluke and the Browns will revert to the mean. Something like 9-8 or 8-9, with the expanded schedule, wouldn’t at all be shocking. Those records would nearly guarantee that the Browns miss the playoffs.
The Browns have lost a few important players on their interior defensive line. Sheldon Richardson, a former pro bowler, and Larry Ogunjobi are both gone. DE Olivier Vernon, who had nine sacks last season is a free agent following an achilles injury. The defense wasn’t great last year and while it has been overhauled, it’s the biggest concern coming into 2021.
To Make the Playoffs (-210)
The good news for Browns fans is that the odds imply over a 66 percent chance of reaching the postseason for a second consecutive year. Most NFL predictions include Cleveland in the playoffs.
OBJ is returning to an already loaded Browns offense after he tore his ACL last season. Even at 80 percent he would make the Browns a better team.
Cleveland received the second highest composite draft grade from 18 analysts’ rankings and got some exciting players in the first few rounds. First round pick Greg Newsome II from Northwestern could immediately improve the secondary.
Second round LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah out of Notre Dame is a big play machine. His best position at the pro level is uncertain but the Browns are hopeful his versatility is an asset.
Pro Football Focus raved about the Browns’ offseason, ranking it among the NFL’s best. Cleveland signed a high level safety in John Johnson III. The Browns also signed CB Troy Hill, LB Anthony Walker, DT Malik Jackson, and DE Jadeveon Clowney and re-signed WR Rashard Higgins.
The Browns overhauled their average 2020 defense and it looks better. Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward are returning, of course, but there are a bunch of fresh faces. Garrett is a stud and totaled 12 sacks last season, which was sixth in the NFL.
Stefanski, the third youngest coach in the NFL, brought the franchise back to relevancy in his first year at the helm. He may very well be the Browns’ biggest asset and could prove that this season.
Mayfield showed that he can develop to be an elite NFL QB in 2020. Mayfield threw for 3,563 yards with 26 TDs and just 8 INTs on a 62.8 completion percentage. Jarvis Landry became Mayfield’s favorite target last season with OBJ out. If Mayfield continues to improve, the sky appears to be the limit.
The Browns stood out on the ground in 2020. The dynamic duo of Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb totaled over 1900 yards and will be returning. Cleveland was fourth in rushing yards per game and seventh in yards per rush attempt.
Cleveland’s offensive line was one of the league’s best, consistently opening up lanes for its backs and allowing the fifth fewest sacks. It’s great news for Browns fans that all of the starters are returning this season.
If the Browns can manage to have anything close to a top-10 defense, this team is almost certainly going back to the playoffs. Even with an average defense, the Browns have the offensive firepower to be among the AFC’s best.
To Win the AFC North (+135)
The Browns have decent NFL division odds to win the AFC North and are getting a lot of respect from oddsmakers. Second to only the Ravens in the AFC North, who are listed at +115 to win the division, Cleveland has a great shot.
Cleveland was within one game of an AFC North title and had the same record as Baltimore last year. There’s certainly an argument to be made that the Browns have improved enough to be considered a better football team than the Ravens.
Plus, Baltimore has the second toughest schedule in the NFL, based on its opponents’ 2020 records. Cleveland’s schedule is in the top 10 most difficult, but it’s notably the least difficult in the AFC North. That alone could be what it takes for the Browns to win the AFC North.
More realistically, the Browns will need to do better than the 3-3 divisional record they posted last season. The Browns have won just two of their last 11 games against the Ravens and that’ll need to change come 2021. The Ravens won both meetings last year but Cleveland will likely need to at least split the series to win the division.
This is where an improvement from the defense would make it much more likely that the Browns can win their first division title since 1989. An OBJ at 100 percent integrated into the Browns offense would also be a terrifying prospect for defenses.
If Chubb can have another 1,000 yard rushing season and Hunt isn’t far behind, defenses will always have to be on their toes. Chubb was fourth in the NFL last year with 5.6 yards per carry and has made the Pro Bowl in two of his three NFL seasons.
Thirty two years is a long divisional drought but this is by far Cleveland’s best shot to end it. It’s hard not to root for the Browns to do it.
To Win the AFC (+750)
The Browns have the fourth best NFL conference odds to win the AFC. That puts the Browns behind just the Chiefs, Ravens and Bills.
Beating out one of those three teams is going to be a tall task but Cleveland may have the pieces in place it needs to make a deep run. If Clowney can have a bounce back year and form a formidable duo with Myles Garrett it’s certainly more likely.
Without a doubt, this is going to be a good offensive team. What would push the Browns over the edge is their defensive draft picks and signings panning out. Maybe Owusu-Koramoah will make other teams regret passing up on him.
The Browns allowed 26.6 points per game last season, which was 22nd in the league. Cleveland had one of the league’s most challenged secondaries as it allowed the sixth-most passing yards in the league. Cleveland was also middle of the road in sack percentage and opponent yards per rush attempt.
Basically, there’s room for improvement on all fronts. It remains to be seen how much the Browns improve on the defensive side of the ball. But, if the Browns could be in the top-eight or so, there’s no denying their potential to win the AFC.
Cleveland took Kansas City to the wire in last year’s divisional round and can hang with anyone in the league. It’ll be tough but Cleveland is capable of appearing in its first ever Super Bowl.
To Win the Super Bowl (+1600)
These Super Bowl Odds imply that the Browns are the eighth most likely Super Bowl Champion, which seems about right. A combination of factors could help the Browns go from the doldrums, as they were 0-16 in 2017, to the pinnacle of the league.
When you look at the last ten Super Bowl-winning QBs, two names stand out. Nick Foles and Joe Flacco are anomalies on the list. Mayfield has been closer to a Foles or Joe Flacco than a Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes or Russell Wilson so far in his career.
It’s tough to win the Super Bowl sans an elite QB. That’s not to say Mayfield can’t take another leap and become one of the league’s best quarterbacks. If he does, bettors may be looking back at these preseason Super Bowl betting odds and be kicking themselves.
He’s got weapons in OBJ, Landry and Higgins and two solid TEs in Austin Hooper and David Njoku. With a fully healthy receiving corps, Mayfield could build on an excellent 2020 and be the catalyst that leads Cleveland to its first ever Super Bowl title.
Defense wins championships, or at least it’s a big factor, and Cleveland has not yet proven it has a top-level defense. If the Browns can take a big leap forward, the title isn’t out of the question.
Staying healthy is the most overlooked factor in the equation. An injury to one of Cleveland’s key players could sink its chances. With a healthy roster, which CBS Sports ranked as the third-most talented in the league, the Browns are capable of doing what seemed impossible just a few years ago.