The Cleveland Browns had the look of a playoff team before the season started. They had a dominant defense, a physical offensive line and a running game that could be powerful and dictate the flow of the game. They also had Deshaun Watson for what they thought would be a full season, with an expected improved version of the bad play Watson displayed last season for the Browns.
Their $230-million quarterback would get them to the playoffs -- and maybe more -- when you added him to their mix of defense and a running game.
Well, the Browns are a playoff contender. But it's not because of Watson. He did some good things in the comeback victory over the Ravens two weeks ago, but a shoulder injury that has limited him this season finally ended his season. It wasn't like he was lighting it up before the injury.
Yet after 11 weeks, the Browns are 7-3 and just beat the Pittsburgh Steelers with a rookie quarterback who was drafted in the fifth round, one who was awful in his first start earlier this season.
Against a good Steelers defense, Dorian Thompson-Robinson didn't put up gaudy numbers, but he didn't allow the Browns to beat themselves. He completed 24 of 43 attempts for 165 passing yards, no touchdowns and one interception, but he did drive the Browns to the game-winning field goal on the final play of the game. On that final drive, he was 4-for-4 for 39 yards.
Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski made the decision to start Thompson-Robinson last week, which surprised many after his first start was such a disaster. But he must have seen something in practice that many did not see. He clearly gave them the best option Sunday.
Stefanski deserves Coach of the Year consideration for the job he's done keeping this team together. It easily could have fallen apart when the Watson situation regarding his injured shoulder became a problem earlier this season.
Let's also not forget the Browns lost running back Nick Chubb -- one of the league's best and a key to their offense -- in Week 2 with a season-ending knee injury.
The Browns defense certainly has been the key to this team being where it is right now. First-year defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has made it the top defense in the league. It is ranked first in yards per game, tops in first downs per game and first in third-down defense at 25.4%. They are fifth in both scoring defense and sacks. Schwartz, by the way, was the defensive coordinator of the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles team that lost quarterback Carson Wentz during the season and then went on to win a Super Bowl.
That's not to say this Browns team can do that with Thompson-Robinson, but you never know. Who thought Nick Foles could do what he did back in the day for that Eagles team?
The Browns are up to seventh this week in my Power Rankings, but the schedule is favorable in the final seven games. They have one division game left, and that's against a Joe Burrow-less Bengals team in Week 18, although this week's game at Denver is a little more of a challenge since the Broncos have won four straight.
Playing in that environment will be a real challenge for Thompson-Robinson in his first NFL road start. But like they say, defense and a running game travel.
So far, it's driven this team to a top-10 ranking in these rankings, and it could bring them a lot more -- even without their starting quarterback.
|Winning the ugly way they did against the Chiefs on the road is a major victory for this team. They are the clear class of the league right now -- even if it hasn't always looked pretty.
|They had to rally to beat a so-so Bears team at home, which isn't a good sign. But the fact they did it shows they are a truly a good team.
|They are getting better by the week. The defense was dominant against a bad Carolina offense, getting DaRon Bland's fourth pick six of the season to seal it.
|The offense just isn't good enough right now. It wasted a good defensive effort against the Eagles. That has to change.
|They are healthy now and playing like it. They beat up Tampa Bay as Brock Purdy had a perfect passer-rating. They are rolling again.
|They handled the Raiders on Sunday, but it wasn't quite the offensive explosion some expected. Now they face a Friday game against the Jets.
|Dorian Thompson-Robinson didn't put up big numbers against Pittsburgh, but he found a way to drive them to the winning points. That's a big moment for him -- and big for this team.
|The offense impressed against the Bengals last Thursday, but the defense wasn't great before Joe Burrow went out. They will be challenged by Justin Herbert this week.
|We finally got to see the Trevor Lawrence many expected to see this season in the blowout of the Titans. Now they face a huge game Sunday versus the Texans.
|C.J. Stroud threw three picks against Arizona to keep the Cardinals in it, but the Texans held on late to win it. They can wind up in first place with a victory over Jacksonville on Sunday.
|They blew the lead in losing to the Rams, which was impacted by Geno Smith getting hurt. Now they face a big Thanksgiving night game with the 49ers.
|Josh Allen and the offense looked much crisper with Joe Brady calling plays against the Jets. Allen was much more patient than in recent games.
|They blew a lead to the Broncos on Sunday night because they turned the ball over three times. The defense continues to be special, but they need Justin Jefferson back on offense.
|The offense did little in the loss to the Browns, but that's been a season-long issue. They would still be in the playoffs if they started today.
|At 5-5, they come off their bye alive in the playoff picture. The question is whether Gardner Minshew can keep them there.
|Sean Payton has this team back on track with four straight victories, and he has indeed fixed Russell Wilson after last year's disaster. Can they really make a playoff push?
|At 5-5, they are the only team in their division without a losing record. They have a big division game with the Falcons this week.
|The Joe Burrow injury situation isn't good, especially considering their schedule is brutal. It sure looks like the playoffs could be done for this team.
|They have made progress under Antonio Pierce. They did some good things against the Dolphins but came up short and now face a big division test with the Chiefs this week.
|That was a gutsy win against Seattle, which puts them at 4-6. They aren't done yet.
|Losing to the Giants and Tommy Devito is a damming blow for this team. They turn it over way too much to be a playoff team.
|So much for the idea of Aaron Rodgers coming back for a playoff push. This team is done. The offense is horrible, no matter who plays quarterback.
|They haven't played well over the course of the past month, but they are far from out of it in their division.
|They come off their bye with a big division game against the Saints. Their quarterback situation is still a little muddy.
|Jordan Love has played well the past two weeks to give this team some life. Now they face a huge division game against the Lions on Thanksgiving as they continue in survival mode.
|They are in big trouble right now after falling to 4-6 in losing to the Packers. Facing Baltimore this week won't be easy as the heat intensifies for Brandon Staley.
|This season is lost after the Jaguars blew them out. The offensive line is bad, which impacts everything they do.
|Justin Fields played well in his return to game action after his thumb injury. That's a good sign for him, especially since he could be auditioning for the Bears and others.
|Kyler Murray has to be making this team think he can be their future. He looks much more comfortable in this offense than he was in the Kliff Kingsbury offense.
|Give this group credit for winning a game with third-team quarterback Tommy Devito. He played well in beating Washington.
|They come off their bye with a winnable game against the Giants. Maybe the bye helped them find some sort of offense.
|Does it matter who calls plays? The offense is awful and Bryce Young looks lost.