Browns in the playoffs? Here's how it could happen

The Cleveland Browns are not afraid to dream big.

Following Sunday’s win over the Carolina Panthers, the Browns were well aware they're still in playoff contention. Until they learn they're eliminated, they will keep their sights set on playing in January.

Their chances? Not good.

ESPN Analytics updated their numbers following all of Sunday’s games and put the Browns' playoff chances at 0.2 percent. In a 32-team league, they have the 25th-best chance.

Any hope of the postseason involves winning out. Analytics says the Browns' chances of doing that are 2.3 percent. Their chances of losing their final three games (at Denver, vs. Cincinnati, at Baltimore) are 25.3 percent.

But any chance means there is a chance. And neither the Browns nor their fans have been able to think about this kind of thing in December in a long time.

The paths to an improbable postseason spot are uphill and full of twists and turns, but they’re not as wacky as they might seem.

Step one: Win out.

This is the beginning and end of the discussion. The Browns have to win their final three games. A loss in any of them dooms them to watching in January because the best they could finish would be 7-8-1. All discussion starts with this premise. The Browns have to finish 8-7-1. At that point, the season-opening tie works to their advantage -- provided they get a tanker full of help.

Possibility one: Win the AFC North.

Entering Sunday, this scenario seemed ludicrous. But then the Browns won, and moved into third place, Baltimore lost in overtime and Pittsburgh lost when its field goal kicker didn’t use the right cleats for a kick to send a game in Oakland to overtime.

With three games left, the Browns trail Pittsburgh by two games and the Ravens by 1.5.

To win the division, the Browns would have to hope Pittsburgh loses all three (the Steelers own the tiebreaker over the Browns) and Baltimore loses one of two before the finale.

The Steelers are reeling, with a porous defense and three losses in a row. Their next two games are against New England and New Orleans before they finish against Cincinnati. Which means Browns fans would be rooting for Hue Jackson to help Cincinnati find some magic against the Steelers in the finale.

That’s a tough hope.

The Ravens finish against Tampa Bay, at the Chargers and against the Browns. The Browns would be pulling for the Chargers in Week 16.

Bottom line: To win the division, the Browns need to win three, then hope Cincinnati can beat Pittsburgh and the Chargers can beat the Ravens.

One of those seems more possible than the other.

Which leads to possibility two: Earn the second wild-card spot.

The Chargers have the first wild card almost completely locked away. That leaves four 7-6 teams and one 6-7 team fighting the 5-7-1 Browns for the second wild card.

For the Browns to get the sixth spot, Miami, Baltimore, Indianapolis and Tennessee would have to lose at least two, and Denver would have to lose once.

The Browns could eliminate the Broncos on Saturday night with a win in Denver. In turn, Denver could eliminate the Browns. Which makes this a mini-playoff game because the losing team’s hopes are dead.

Miami finishes at Minnesota, against Jacksonville and at Buffalo. The Vikings game will be tough, and the Dolphins have struggled in cold weather in Buffalo.

The Ravens have the Chargers and Browns to be most concerned about.

The Colts have a tough draw against the surging Cowboys (winners of five in a row), the Giants (who have scored 70 points in winning their last two) and at Tennessee, a game that could decide a playoff spot.

The Titans, winners of their last two, play at the Giants, and at home against the Redskins and Colts.

Browns fans will be watching that Titans-Giants game closely on Sunday. New York could be a major spoiler in the AFC South.

Take everything into account and the chances are not great for the Browns to reach the postseason, but they’re not totally ludicrous either. If the NFL proved nothing else on Sunday, it’s that craziness is just a slip or a lateral or a bounce away.

It’s a dream, but if ever a fan base deserved to dream an impossible dream in December, it’s the long-suffering group that has supported the Browns through thick and thicker.