Although the Cleveland Browns will have to wait until next season for their next opportunity to make the playoffs, it’s worthwhile to see what can be learned from the teams that did qualify. In essence, what separates the contenders from the postseason tourists.
The Browns have been working on hiring their defensive coordinator, but undoubtedly had an eye on the games being played, which likely reinforced some of what they already believed, but may have put an enhanced focus on where they need to improve heading into the 2023 season.
1. Quarterback play
The most obvious, the teams that got the best quarterback play won. The New York Giants won in no small part because of the play of quarterback Daniel Jones, creating both with his arm and his legs. The San Francisco 49ers had a commanding talent advantage against the Seattle Seahawks, but rookie Brock Purdy allowed them to remove any lingering doubts.
Dak Prescott was dominant for the Dallas Cowboys, Joe Burrow was the Cincinnati Bengals offense and Josh Allen’s game wasn’t pretty, but it was enough for the Buffalo Bills to outlast the Miami Dolphins.
The Browns have what they believe is the quarterback that can get them to this point. Deshaun Watson simply has to do it. The biggest focus of the offseason, Watson and head coach Kevin Stefanski will be working to figure out the best way to maximize the position, justifying the significant investment amid the scrutiny.
After the six games Watson played, he certainly wasn’t there, something he openly acknowledged. Certainly better than when he took his first snaps against the Houston Texans, Watson was surprised how difficult it was to regain his previous form. A productive offseason and an offense that won’t be changed midseason, the Browns are confident they can be in this position next season with a quarterback capable of delivering playoff victories.
2. The Line of Scrimmage
The Baltimore Ravens were able to take the Bengals down to the wire based almost entirely because they were so competitive on the line of scrimmage. The Bengals defensive line seemingly had a decisive advantage heading into this game, but encountered their share of struggles throughout the game. Meanwhile, what’s left of the Bengals offensive line was on its heels the entire game.
The Bengals only rushed for 51 yards in the game. Between Burrow’s ability to get the ball out quickly and a middling pass rush, the Bengals were able to get enough offensive production, winning the game on a defensive touchdown. Still, Burrow was sacked four times and just like last year, the question is whether or not Burrow will be able to stay upright to win the game.
The Cowboys and 49ers dominated the trenches in their matchups, which helped lead to blowouts. Prescott was able to operate unencumbered while Tom Brady was constantly under duress.
This was one of the factors that allowed the Dolphins to hang around in a game they appeared to be overmatched. The Dolphins racked up seven sacks on Allen, hit him 13 times and one of those sacks resulted in a fumble and a defensive touchdown.
The Browns have a strong offensive line even if it had its share of issues down the stretch. Meanwhile, their defensive line was their Achilles’ heel. Defensive tackle was a weakness heading into the season that was exacerbated by a poor year from Jadeveon Clowney.
The Browns couldn’t win the line of scrimmage to stop the run and their pass rush from anyone not named Myles Garrett was non-existent. They head into the offseason needing to find three starters, but the postseason shows the value of going much further.
Even if teams weren’t loaded with stalwarts across the board, their depth allowed them to be a consistent problem. Look at where the eight remaining playoff teams ranked by pressure rate this season.
1. Eagles – 25.5%
3. Cowboys – 25.2%
4. Jaguars – 25.1%
5. Chiefs – 24.9%
7. Giants – 24.3%
11. 49ers – 22.8%
12. Bengals – 22.7%
14. Bills – 22.4%
The Browns, meanwhile, had a pressure rate of 18.3 percent, 27th in the league. The Browns had a 24.3 percent pressure rate in 2021 when their defense performed far better and even that was only good enough for 17th. If the Browns are serious about contending, they need to at least get into the top half of the league. Myles Garrett is such a dominant force that it wouldn’t take much to get to the league average. However, it’s also an opportunity to make it an overwhelming strength.
The Browns need to find three defensive line starters this offseason, issues that should be addressed in free agency. But even if they do that and get growth from Alex Wright, Perrion Winfrey and Isaiah Thomas as they head into year two, the Browns should strongly considering drafting more edge help, perhaps with the top pick of the upcoming NFL Draft.
Good news! This draft class is loaded.
3. Fortune Favored the Bold
Perhaps, just as importantly, being conservative punished teams all weekend. Nowhere was this more evident than in the game between the Jaguars and Los Angeles Chargers.
Conventional wisdom says to take the points on the road. The Chargers tried to take the points four different times.
4th-and-goal from the 4. 22-yard field goal.
4th-and-goal from the 5. 23-yard field goal.
The 50-yard field goal on 4th-and-11 was certainly a sensible choice.
It’s entirely defensible for the Chargers to have taken this course of action. They still could’ve won the game if they had simply been aggressive on 4th-and-3 at the Jaguars 22-yard line. The Chargers attempted a 40-yard field goal. This time, Dicker missed, hooking it left. Even if he made it, it would’ve only changed the score from 30-20 to 33-20, still a two-score game.
The Jaguars bet that Chargers head coach Brandon Staley would take the ‘safe’ route once again by declining a holding penalty that would’ve put the Chargers into a 3rd-and-13 situation. They wanted the Chargers to attempt the field goal.
Had Staley just been aggressive and gone for it, the Chargers could’ve won the game right there. Failing on fourth down still would’ve left them with a two-score lead. A touchdown and a three-score game would’ve ripped the Jaguars heart out, but Staley turned it down. Dicker missed the kick, which only hammered home a painful lesson.
The Jaguars would score a touchdown and another field goal. They had the time and were within scoring range to get a second touchdown had they needed it. Maybe the Chargers could’ve come up with a stop.
It’s a shame because Staley was uber aggressive the year before, which made him one of the most polarizing coaches in the league.
Contrast that against the Jaguars approach in the same game.
On 4th-and-7 from the Chargers 33-yard line, Doug Pederson opted to go for it instead of attempting a 51-yard field goal. It failed horribly as Trevor Lawrence threw the second of his four interceptions. The interception was meaningless as the Chargers only returned it six yards and it would’ve been a turnover on downs regardless.
Pederson was lambasted by critics in the moment. Fortunately, he was not discouraged.
The Jaguars converted two other fourth downs. Both were 4th-and-1, but both were aggressive calls by Pederson. The first was a 12-yard completion to Marvin Jones that led to the Jaguars first touchdown before the end of the first half. The second was the toss to Travis Etienne out of a T-formation that picked up 25 yards that set up the game winning field goal.
The Chargers played it safe, never attempting to convert on a single fourth down in the game, a decision Staley undoubtedly regrets.
Not the only game where aggression paid off, Dak Prescott ran a keeper out of the backdoor into the end zone as former Cowboys quarterback and current ESPN commentator Troy Aikman urged caution. The Cowboys went up 12-0 and never looked back.
Not unlike Staley last year, critics, especially those in the media, continue to try to get Stefanski to play it safer, take the points more often. Games like this one should only strengthen his resolve in his approach. Win by scoring touchdowns, keeping the ball in the hands of the team’s biggest playmakers.