In breaking down the AFC playoff picture this week, we pronounced the Cleveland Browns a long shot at overtaking the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North and have too tough of an upcoming schedule to truly compete for a Wild Card spot.
But Thursday’s game against their division rival Cincinnati will go a long way in determining more than just how long the team’s season will last.
With a win over the Bengals, the 5-3 Browns make a statement — they’re not ready to get looked over just yet. A win indicates that they can go toe-to-toe with the AFC North heavyweights. After all, they avenged their season-opening loss against Pittsburgh with a 31-10 stomping of the Steelers in Week 6. Yes, those Steelers, the same team that has skyrocketed in the AFC standings with record-setting offensive production over the past three games.
A win over Cincinnati would even the Browns’ divisional record to 2-2, with one more game against the Bengals and Ravens before season’s end. As we outlined, the schedule is among the toughest of the Wild Card contenders, but a win over the Bengals is a huge step in the right direction. And if the Browns remain in the hunt for the playoffs, you have to assume Brian Hoyer remains the team’s starting quarterback.
Now let’s look at it from the other end of the spectrum.
With a loss against Cincinnati, Cleveland drops to 5-4 and 1-3 against AFC North foes. At 5-4 the Browns are not eliminated from the playoff discussion at all, but it does make it quite the uphill climb against the likes of the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens and the two teams they’re looking up to in their own division.
Hoyer is 8-3 as the team’s starter over the past two seasons, but with the playoffs falling farther and farther out of their grasp, the Browns have to start considering whether it’s Hoyer they want at quarterback this season. By no means is a 5-4 record this season means for benching Hoyer, but there is certainly added pressure to make some sort of move when a first-round pick is waiting in the wings.
It’s hard to fault Hoyer for what he’s done this season. Through nine weeks of the season the Browns remain in the thick of the playoff hunt, and they’ve done so with injuries to starting running back Ben Tate and having to rely on a pair of rookies, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, in his place. Josh Gordon has been suspended for the bulk of the season and won’t return until Week 10, and Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron has battled injuries that have forced him out of the lineup far too often.
Still, Hoyer has managed to lift Cleveland out of the AFC North cellar, giving the fans and coaching staff a glimmer of hope about the team’s future. He managed to win the starting job over Johnny Manziel in the pre-season, despite an anxious fan base eager to see if the first-round pick can continue the magic he used to perform as a Heisman Trophy winner at Texas A&M.
There’s certainly an Aaron Rodgers route the Browns could go in, allowing Manziel to sit and learn his first year and maybe into his second. But the difficulty with that lies in the fact that Hoyer is only 29 years old. Brett Favre was already 35 years old when the Green Bay Packers nabbed Rodgers in the first round of the 2005 draft, knowing that Favre’s best days were already behind him.
Hoyer is still young enough to be an NFL starting quarterback for the next five years, and there’s no way Manziel can be a backup for that length of time. And that brings us back to Thursday night’s showdown between the Browns and Bengals.
The Browns need to make a decision about what they’re going to do with Manziel, and Thursday should be a critical game in deciding that course of action. With a win, they continue their magical march toward a playoff spot. That means Hoyer is the guy, and the closer he gets to lifting the Browns into uncharted territory, the more he’s proving that he should be the team’s future under center.
A loss, on the other hand, dims the Browns’ realistic chances at playing important football into January. And the Browns front office must decide whether mediocre with a slugger’s chance at making the playoffs each season is what they’re content with, or do they want to spark the team with the promising, transcendent rookie that is Manziel.
And of course, there’s a third option, a mix of the two others. If the Browns realize Hoyer can be “the guy,” aren’t there a handful of other teams beginning to plan their college scouting that would be eager to get their hands on Manziel? Wouldn’t Lovie Smith or Rex Ryan be willing to make a call to Ray Farmer?
There are a lot of teams that need to put their faith in a young signal-caller, while the Browns need to decide which one of the two they want to invest their future in. Thursday’s game — win or lose — should provide us with some insight as to which direction the team may go.