Kevin Stefanski won Coach of the Year honors from three organizations, including the coveted AP title.
That’s what happens when you guide a perennial losing team like the Cleveland Browns to the playoffs.
It also helps when you win a playoff game and knock off your biggest division rival twice along the way.
First-year Browns coach Kevin Stefanski was voted The Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year after leading Cleveland to its first playoff appearance since 2002.
— AP NFL (@AP_NFL) February 7, 2021
But after all the accolades and celebrations that came with Cleveland’s big season, one thing strikes me.
The Cleveland Browns were still a third-place team in their division.
And the fourth-place team lost their quarterback halfway through the year.
When you look at it that way… well, let’s not look at it that way.
The Browns were one of the most improved teams across the league, and not just in the win column.
Cleveland’s change of culture wasn’t only the result of a winning record.
— P.J. ZIEGLER (@PJFOX8) February 3, 2021
Baker Mayfield emerged as a leader and a winning quarterback.
The team as a whole rallied when it needed to.
And when the Browns ended their campaign at 12-6 in the 19th week of the season, they weren’t satisfied.
Now, they get to play a third-place schedule in 2021.
What Kind of Schedule Faces the AFC North?
The Browns and the rest of the AFC North got to play the NFC East and the AFC South last year.
That was widely regarded as the easiest assignment, which is how the 11-5 Browns landed in third place.
Things won’t be as easy in 2021, with the AFC West and the NFC North on tap.
In fact, the Browns third-place schedule is one of the ten toughest schedules of 2021.
Each team will play the Chargers, Raiders, Broncos, and Chiefs.
— Scott Patsko (@ScottPatsko) January 4, 2021
After the Packers, the rest of the NFC North might not seem as intimidating.
But the Vikings are always playoff contenders and the Bears surprise a few folks every year.
And the Lions have a new coach trying to be next year’s Stefanski with an angry young quarterback behind center.
Cleveland gets to play the Patriots and Texans, as opposed to Pittsburgh’s dates with Buffalo and Tennessee.
Baltimore takes on the Dolphins and Colts, while the Bengals play the Jets and Jaguars.
How That Plays Out For The Division
Coming out of the inter-divisional games at 4-4 will be a fete for each of the AFC North teams.
The Chiefs and the Packers are likely to be teams on a mission.
When you play behind teams like that, the rest of the division values wins outside their quartet.
Cleveland and Baltimore will be up to the challenge and can probably count on 5 wins outside the division.
Cincinnati might slip below .500, especially if they don’t fix their offensive line.
Nick Chubb's return to the end zone sends Browns to win over Texans
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) November 15, 2020
The difference might be the extra games against same-place opponents.
Pittsburgh projects to be closer to the team we saw in the last quarter of the 2020 season than the 11-0 Steelers.
We can’t expect them to beat the Bills and the Titans will play them tough.
Miami and Indianapolis are rising powers who will give the Ravens all they can handle.
Our favorite rising power, Cleveland, should find it easier to knock off their third-placed opponents.
We’ll even give Joe Burrow a sweep against two rookie coaches and quarterbacks.
Who Wins The AFC North Division Battles?
It’s always easier to win a division if you win all your division contests.
Cleveland might be favored to sweep their six division games if they fill some holes on defense.
Baltimore could lose Orlando Brown, but since their quarterback never stands still anyway, they might not notice.
Then, there are the defending division champion Steelers.
It’s hard to imagine a Mike Tomlin-coached team finishing under .500, but their offensive line and quarterback are crumbling.
Baker Mayfield threw for three touchdowns and the Cleveland Browns collected their first playoff victory in 26 years with a 48-37 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.https://t.co/dt0dvq0C9F
— CBS Local (@cbslocal) January 11, 2021
Pittsburgh has too many hurdles and holes to think they’ll beat the Ravens and Browns again.
Cincinnati is a team that can stay in games and pull off some upsets along the way.
In fact, they’ll beat Pittsburgh in 2021, at least once.
But neither Cincy nor Pittsburgh will beat the Browns or Ravens.
We’ll be generous and say the two top teams knock each other off during the season.
And that will be enough to give the Cleveland Browns their first division title under Kevin Stefanski.
Doing the Math in the AFC North Standings.
Cleveland is destined to win 7 games outside the AFC North to go along with their 5 division victories.
Baltimore will win 6 non-divisional games and match the Browns’ 5-1 record versus the AFC North.
Cincinnati will go 5-5 outside the division and 1-5 inside for a 6-10 record.
And Pittsburgh will go 4-6 outside the division and 1-5 versus the AFC North.
That puts the Browns in first place with a record of 12-4.
Baker Mayfield: "It's win or go home. That is the mentality for our guys."
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) December 31, 2020
And (almost as good) it drops the Steelers into last at 5-11.
Baltimore takes a wild card slot at 11-5.
Final AFC North Standings
Of course, I could be wrong about things in the topsy-turvy world of the NFL.
There are still free-agents, draft picks, trades, injuries, locker room issues, black cats, and rally possums to factor in.
But for now, I’m sleeping soundly with the notion of the AFC North Champion Browns in my head.