The idea of a Week 16 Browns-Jets game with significant stakes is preposterous. Who ever heard of such a thing? Mere months ago, even theorizing aloud on the possibility of a meaningful late-season Browns-Jets game would’ve gotten you punched in the nose and your car impounded. And yet here we are: on your very television, on December 27 of the year 2020, a meaningful Week 16 Browns-Jets game.
Considering the complementing stakes for the two franchises—the Browns need to win in order to chase an elusive playoff appearance, while the Jets need to lose in order for all the rest of their miserable losing to be redeemed with the top overall pick in the next player draft—you would think an unspoken agreement would be reached whereby the Jets lay down and the Browns stampede over them. Not so! The Browns got some shitty news practically as their team flight was taxiing for takeoff, and as a result were simply not equipped to stampede over even as pancake-flat a non-obstacle as the New York Jets:
The final tally was brutal: Four of the five receivers on Cleveland’s depth chart—Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and KhaDarel Hodge—were placed on the COVID-19 reserve list, plus linebacker B.J. Goodson and backup Jacob Phillips. The Browns elevated a pair of practice-squad wideouts Saturday, but even with these emergency reserves, quarterback Baker Mayfield would be operating without a receiver who had ever caught a single one of his passes. In order to get these new guys up to speed the Browns had to resort to bopping around in an ice-cold parking garage Sunday morning:
That is not a recipe for tremendous success. But the Jets find themselves in a similarly precarious spot. The Jets need to lose and lose and lose while also maintaining enough plausible deniability about their goals that people can continue to say looney things about the team playing so hard for head coach Adam Gase at the tail end of a total farce of a season. Any sort of respectable effort by the Jets simply will not do, especially when winning would forfeit any chance at scoring the top pick in the draft, which has been the only conceivable justification for allowing Gase to stick around and finish this season. A Jets win combined with a Jaguars loss to the Bears—nowadays a virtual certainty—would secure the top overall draft pick for Jacksonville and deprive Jets fans of the anticipated rewards of a whole lot of painfully sustained suckitude.
So what does a horrendous team that must lose do against a badly hobbled opponent that must win? To the great misery of Browns fans and Jets fans; they kick ass! With joy and verve and creativity!
But even with all this ass-kicking going on, the Jets—who know a thing or twelve about crapping away an all-but-certain win—once again found themselves right on the brink of a much-needed come-from-ahead loss. The Browns, down by a score in the game’s final minutes, got a clutch catch-and-run from Kareem Hunt to get deep into Jets territory ahead of the two-minute warning. Some thoughtful play-calling and careful execution from New York’s 28-yard-line would give the Browns a very good chance at a game-tying score.
Though these may not be exactly the Browns of old, they are still very much the Browns. And, for that matter, the must-lose Jets are extremely, extremely still the Jets! How would this conundrum unfold?
The ruling here is a little bit confusing. Mayfield fumbled and it was recovered by Hunt, but because it was fourth down, the ball cannot be advanced by a player other than the one doing the fumbling. And so, by an obscure technicality that will henceforth be spoken of with great venom by every single human who roots for either one of these horrid franchises, the Jets secured possession and won the game.
With the loss and a Steelers win over the Colts, the AFC North crown is clinched for Pittsburgh, and the Browns drop to seventh in the AFC. The Browns and Steelers will face off in Week 17; due to the expanded 2020 playoffs, which will feature 14 teams, Cleveland still has a decent shot at a berth, but will need some things to break their way in the regular season’s final week. It’s worth noting, here, that the last time the Browns won 10 games in a season, they failed to qualify for the playoffs. Surely such a thing could not happen again, not to such a not-at-all-snakebit organization.
Congratulations to Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, whose reward for escaping the clutches of the doomed and accursed New York Jets is a future with the doomed and accursed Jacksonville Jaguars. Truly the NFL has now produced an outcome with zero winners.