In a word, yes.
After Cleveland lost their tenth game of the season to Jacksonville last week, I was surprised to see them still listed as “In the Hunt” on the NFL’s Playoff Picture page. The NFL is careful about this stuff, but I’m loathe to accept it on face value. So as I have done in the past, I set about to prove that this is indeed possible, with the help of Microsoft Excel and the New York Times’s 2017 NFL Playoff Simulator.
I started by separating the AFC into teams that have already clinched a higher seed than Cleveland (surprisingly, only four) and those that haven’t, and assumed the remaining games always go in favor of the former. Of course I assumed that Cleveland wins all of its remaining games. Then I assumed that the teams with which Cleveland is still mathematically in competition lose all of their remaining games against NFC opponents. Finally, I determined the ideal (for Cleveland) outcome of the remaining twenty or so games involving AFC teams. The aforementioned playoff simulator was useful for verifying this work.
Here are the results: If Cleveland wins out to go 6-10, they can end up in a four- or five-way tie for the sixth and final playoff seed (with the Jets, Buffalo, Baltimore, and optionally Miami). In these scenarios, New England, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, and Kansas City win their divisions and Tennessee wins the fifth seed wildcard. The remaining six or seven teams (Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Houston, the Chargers, Oakland, Denver, and optionally Miami) all end up either 5-11 or 4-12.
But how does Cleveland win the wildcard tiebreaker with the other 6-10 teams? Since there are three or more teams from multiple divisions, first we apply the division tiebreaker “to eliminate all but the highest ranked club in each division.” Buffalo beats the Jets and Miami by virtue of the best record against common opponents (being tied in head-to-head and division record) and Cleveland beats Baltimore by virtue of a better division record. Then Cleveland beats Buffalo by virtue of a better record against common opponents (being tied in conference record).
For this to happen, about half of the remaining 96 regular season NFL games have to go in Cleveland’s favor, including Cleveland winning all six of its remaining games after an 0-10 start.
Let’s look at the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend (week 12). Cleveland must defeat Cincinnati and at least five or six of the following must occur:
- Dallas defeats the Chargers
- Tennessee defeats Indianapolis
- Kansas City defeats Buffalo
- New England defeats Miami
- Carolina defeats the Jets
- Oakland defeats Denver
- Houston defeats Baltimore
It’s extremely unlikely that Cleveland’s playoff hopes survive this week, let alone the remainder of the regular season, for which even one-in-a-million is a generous assessment, mathematically speaking. But it’s possible, which I imagine for Browns fans is worth something.
Disclaimer: I did not factor tie games into any of my calculations.