It’s January of 2024 and the Cleveland Browns are playoff-bound. After the Baltimore Ravens routed the Miami Dolphins. They are locked into- the AFC Wildcard 5th seed. It appears to be most likely that they will travel to the AFC South Division Champion to play in the first round of the NFL playoffs. We must wait for the final Week 18 results to know exactly which team that will be. The Browns will either play the Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans or the Indianapolis Colts. All three of these teams the Browns have played and defeated in 2023.
With their playoff standing set, the real question is what is best for the Browns in the final week of the 2023 season.
The Browns season finale in Cincinnati has absolutely no bearing on the playoffs that begin on the weekend of January 13th and 14th. The Cleveland Browns 2023 playoff run is miraculous because of the number of injuries this team has overcome. The Browns have not had a bye week since Week 5 of this season. Also, don’t forget that Joe Flacco will turn 39 years old on January 16th. A week of rest and recovery for the playoffs would be ideal for him. The Browns cannot earn the number one AFC playoff seed. And that is not always a bad thing.
Since 1990 only 32 of 64 number one playoff seeds have made it to the Super Bowl. Last year’s Super Bowl had two number-one seeds represented by the Eagles and Chiefs. The last time that occurred was in 2017 with the Eagles and Patriots. So, getting a home-field advantage in the NFL playoffs doesn’t necessarily guarantee a trip to the Super Bowl. It is a 50 percent chance for a top-seeded playoff team to reach the Super Bowl. Of course, in the NFL playoffs, anything can happen, this is also true for Wildcard Teams.
The first NFL Wildcard Team to win a Super Bowl was the 1980 Oakland Raiders. That did not happen again until 1997 with the Denver Broncos. Since then, there have been five more Super Bowl Champions that entered the playoffs as a Wildcard Team. The 2000 Ravens, the 2005 Steelers, the 2007 Giants, the 2010 Packers, and the 2020 Buccaneers were all Wildcard Teams that won the Super Bowl. There is a commonality that all these teams share with the 2023 Cleveland Browns.
The commonality is an excellent defense. The 2023 Cleveland Browns have the NFL’s top-ranked defense. They also go into the final week of the NFL season with the second-best record in the NFL. The only teams with more wins than the 2023 Cleveland Browns are the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens. And the Browns beat both of those teams this season. Another factor going into the NFL playoffs is a team getting hot at the right time. Right now, the three hottest teams in the NFL are the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens. Others may argue to keep playing the starters to not lose any momentum going into the playoffs. The data to rest or not rest starters going into the playoffs is inconclusive.
According to a 2021 Sports Illustrated article the last ten years only two teams that rested starters went on to win the next playoff game, four teams lost the next playoff game after resting starters. 28 teams went on to win their next playoff game after not resting their starters and six teams lost their next playoff game after not resting their starters. The sample size is too small to consider the data to be conclusive. However, I think the team’s specific circumstances must be considered in the decision to play or rest starters.
The 2023 Cleveland Browns are a statistical anomaly. With four different starting quarterbacks and 25% of the team’s salary cap is on injured reserve, they still won 11 games. The coaching and team management has been outstanding. That management must continue, the best thing to do is the get this team as healthy as possible for the playoffs. With a long week from Thursday Night Football and the team not having a bye in 12 weeks, this situation is perfect to get healthier. With this defense and a rested and refreshed Joe Flacco, the 2023 Cleveland Browns playoff run will be remembered even more than the 2023 regular season.