The Deshaun Watson saga has reached its conclusion. Watson and the NFL have agreed to a settlement that will increase his suspension for sexual misconduct from six to 11 games. Additionally, the Browns quarterback will pay a $5 million fine. How does Watson’s punishment affect Cleveland’s hopes of a playoff berth in 2022?
How Deshaun Watson’s suspension affects the AFC playoff race
While the first month of Cleveland’s schedule won’t present many challenges, it will get more difficult as the season progresses. Jacoby Brissett will face the Panthers, Jets, Steelers, and Falcons over the first four weeks of the year. From there, Watson will miss interconference games against the Chargers, Patriots, Ravens, Bengals, Dolphins, and Bills, as well as a Week 12 matchup against the Buccaneers.
Watson will return in Week 13 to face the Texans. Then, he’ll be staring at a critical five-week stretch to end the season that includes three AFC North matchups, plus games against the Saints and Commanders. At that point, will the Browns’ season already be all but over?
Earlier this month, Pro Football Network’s Dalton Miller examined how Brissett will fare in Watson’s absence, noting that the 29-year-old is likely to be competent yet frustrating to watch. Head coach Kevin Stefanski may need to scale back his playbook a tad, and Cleveland is unlikely to call as many aggressive, downfield shots with Brissett under center.
The Browns will undoubtedly lean even more heavily on their run game than last season. In 2021, Cleveland finished with the NFL’s sixth-highest run rate (48%), ranked first in rushing DVOA, and was one of only five teams to net a positive EPA on running plays.
Still boasting one of the NFL’s best offensive lines even after the loss of center Nick Harris, the Browns aren’t going to give up on the ground game any time soon. Nick Chubb is among the most powerful running backs in the league, and Kareem Hunt, D’Ernest Johnson, and rookie Jerome Ford give Cleveland enviable depth.
Meanwhile, the Browns’ defense will become all the more critical while Brissett is the club’s starting quarterback. Cleveland gave up 21.8 points per game last year (13th in the NFL), and there’s room for improvement. While the Browns didn’t make a ton of additions on the defensive side of the ball, young players like Greg Newsome, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and Grant Delpit should all be expected to take leaps forward in 2022.
How the Browns compare to the rest of the AFC
There’s still a path for the Browns to contend next season, but we’d be lying if we told you the AFC will be a cakewalk. Far from it. Cleveland’s chances would be much-improved if they played in the weaker NFC, but their route to the postseason in the AFC will be littered with obstacles.
Let’s assume the Bills, Chiefs, and Chargers are locks — or at least, near locks — to make the playoffs in 2022. That leaves four spots remaining. One slot will go to the AFC South champion, and another will go to the winner of the AFC North, which could conceivably be the Browns.
All told, the Browns, Bengals, Ravens, Broncos, Raiders, Colts, Titans, and Dolphins will be competing for those four spots. FanDuel Sportsbook has Cleveland’s win total at 8.5 following Watson’s suspension, while their odds to win the AFC North are at +300. Will eight or nine wins be enough to sneak into the postseason in the AFC?
It doesn’t seem likely. On paper, most of the true AFC contenders are superior to a Brissett-led Browns squad. We haven’t even mentioned the possibility that a team like the Jets, Steelers, or Jaguars could surprise and thrust themselves into the playoff race.
The Browns had to know this was a possibility when they sent three first-round picks to the Texans in exchange for Watson and subsequently handed him a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract. Cleveland will have to hope Brissett can get them through 11 games and leave the team with a fighting chance once Watson returns.