The Browns need a minor miracle to make the playoffs this season, but the players, coaches and executives who were members of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2008 know anything is possible.
Perhaps good luck is once again on the side of coach Pat Shurmur, General Manager Tom Heckert and the other ex-Eagles who now call Northeast Ohio home. After all, the Browns (5-8) seemingly caught a huge break on the eve of their home finale today against the Washington Redskins (7-6). Rookie quarterback Kirk Cousins is expected to start against the Browns in place of rookie sensation Robert Griffin III, the Redskins announced Saturday night.
Griffin, the second-overall pick in this year's draft, mildly sprained the lateral collateral ligament in his right knee last week against the Baltimore Ravens. Although he practiced Wednesday through Friday and is listed as questionable on the injury report, Cousins, a fourth-round pick, is now set to make his first career start.
“The decision was not my own,” Griffin wrote on Twitter. “But I will be there for my team in every way I possibly can.”
The Redskins' change at quarterback could elicit memories of everything falling into place for the Eagles in 2008. Of the teams that remained in the hunt for a playoff spot entering the final weekend of that season, the Eagles had the lowest odds, but they qualified with help from around the NFL. Heckert, the Eagles' GM at the time, said he remembers monitoring the scoreboard before the start of Philadelphia’s Sunday night home game against the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 28, 2008.
The Oakland Raiders upset the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Houston Texans defeated the Chicago Bears and the Eagles punched their ticket to the postseason by thrashing the Cowboys 44-6 and finishing with a record of 9-6-1, good enough for a wild card. The Eagles eventually advanced to the NFC Championship Game and fell to the Arizona Cardinals.
“When I was in Philly, we were going through the same thing,” said Browns defensive end Juqua Parker, who played for the Eagles from 2005-11. “We had to have all types of things to happen, but they all happened and we made it to the playoffs. The sky is the limit.”
For the Browns to continue to flirt with an earning improbable wild-card berth of their own, they must prevail in all three of their remaining games and catch several other breaks. They hope to extend their winning streak to four games when they host the Redskins at 1 p.m. today. The Browns’ last two games this year will be on the road — Dec. 23 against the Denver Broncos (10-3) and Dec. 30 against the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6).
“It’s exciting enough just to be in the position we’re in right now,” middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “I think every guy in this locker room is walking with a fire up under their tail right now because of the sense of urgency. Just to be entertaining that word — playoffs — it means a lot for this organization and for the Cleveland community.”
If the Browns earn their sixth win in their past nine games and improve to 5-3 at home by triumphing over the Redskins, they’ll pay close attention to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ road game against the Cowboys, which will start at 4:25 p.m. today. For the Browns to stay mathematically alive heading into next weekend, they would need the Steelers to lose to the Cowboys (7-6). Then the Browns would need the Steelers to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) on Dec. 23 to avoid elimination before their regular-season finale at Pittsburgh.
The Browns, though, aren’t getting caught up in the seemingly never-ending series of scenarios because none of them will matter if they don’t win out.
“Anytime you have a chance to play more football and guarantee you can go to the playoffs, the magnitude that would be for the city, the magnitude it would be for these fans, the locker room, it gives you a little extra something to strive for and makes you focus in and really prepare well throughout the week,” rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden said. “And that’s really our only mindset. [We’ll] go out and play well on Sunday. And then how it all falls, we can only control winning. There’s got to be a lot of things that happen, but we can control winning, and that’s it.”
The postseason whispers would turn to silence with a loss. After starting this season 0-5, it’s amazing the Browns are making any noise at all. No NFL team has made the playoffs after such a dismal start.
“This is part of becoming a good team,” Jackson said. “You have to compete around this time when every game matters. We’re getting a taste of it. We don’t know how this thing is going to play out. But if we go out and take care of these 12 quarters we have left, I think everything will take care of itself. It’d be a great tool for the young guys to see we had a rocky start but we kept fighting through it and we got some wins at key points and we put ourselves in a position to entertain such [an idea] as the playoffs.”
At the very least, playing a meaningful game in Week 15 has put some pep in the Browns’ step.
“Essentially this last little final piece is like the playoff push for every team,” Weeden said. “You have a little extra energy. You’re playing for something special. Every team’s playing for something special. That’s going to make it fun to go about it. Whether a team has a chance to knock a team out of the playoff race or a team has a chance to jump into a playoff race, there’s a lot still at stake, a lot to play for. So that just adds a little incentive.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.