CLEVELAND, Ohio — As the Cleveland Browns fell from 1-1 to 2-5 in the first half of last season, they maneuvered through a stretch that saw them face five opponents that ended the season with records of 9-7, 14-2, 13-3, 11-5 and 12-4.
That’s a combined record of 59-21 for the Rams, Ravens, 49ers, Seahawks and Patriots, and the Browns beat that 14-2 Baltimore team. Boy, do the Browns wish they could have mixed in a game against the Bengals in that stretch. Instead, by the time the Browns faced the worst team in the league twice, they were running out of gas at 5-7 and then officially broken down at 6-9 … so yes, the schedule matters.
With the 2020 schedule released last week, it’s hard to tell if Browns fans are optimistic, or if that optimism was all used up last summer. Just in case, after shouting a 12-4 prediction for months last year, I’m gonna play it safe.
Instead of looking at the fact that after opening the season with MVP Lamar Jackson, the Browns face just one other top-15 quarterback (Dak Prescott) in the other seven games before their bye … fear Derek Carr. As opposed to seeing a schedule that sets them up for a confidence-building start, then finishes with two softies wedged between two destiny-controlling division games … assume the worst.
Rather than focusing on the fact that the Browns play six games against the bottom seven teams in ESPN’s power ratings, and that they shored up their greatest weakness last season (offensive tackle) without taking anything major away from the other premium positions of pass rusher, cornerback, receiver and quarterback, just … be football wary.
Predicting 12-4 sure didn’t work. So with what should be better coaching, more cohesion, an offensive style more suited to Baker Mayfield, equal or better talent at the positions that matter most, an easier schedule, a humbling 2019 season that should lead to refocused dedication, and a quarterback and No. 1 receiver who have a year together under their belts, let’s take a 4-12 test run through this schedule and try on some pessimism and see how that feels.
Mayfield has averaged 313 passing yards per game against the Ravens, with a 2-2 record that was almost 3-1, but pay that no mind. John Harbaugh was 18-2 against the Browns as Baltimore’s coach before Mayfield arrived, and there is no chance that Mayfield is actually the Baltimore antidote the Browns have been seeking for a decade, and that whatever Jackson does to the Browns defense, Mayfield has a chance to do the same to the Ravens defense. Never.
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow will be playing on a Thursday night in Week 2 of his rookie year, similar to how Mayfield played on a Thursday night in Week 3 of his rookie year. The fact that Burrow is the new QB in Ohio and Mayfield is surrounded by questions in Year 3 won’t motivate Mayfield at all. Neither will the memory of that win against the Jets in his 2018 debut that broke a 19-game winless streak for the Browns. It’s Burrow’s night. Sorry, Baker.
In 2019, the Browns played a team coming off a losing season that picked an Ohio State defensive end No. 2 in the NFL Draft. San Francisco and Nick Bosa beat the Browns and went on to the Super Bowl. In 2020, the Browns are playing a team coming off a losing season that picked an Ohio State defensive end No. 2 in the NFL Draft. History, folks. This obviously will be an early step for Washington and Chase Young toward the Super Bowl.
The Browns haven’t beaten Dallas since 1994. But what if acrimonious contract negotiations lead to a holdout for quarterback Dak Prescott? That would leave new backup QB Andy Dalton, who is 12-5 as a starter against the Browns and was signed seemingly just to win this game.
Sure, 38-year-old Philip Rivers in his 17th NFL season doesn’t seem like an impossible quarterback to beat. But this will probably be the game for which Andrew Luck un-retires.
Speaking of old quarterbacks, who thinks 38-year-old Ben Roethlisberger, coming off surgery on his right throwing elbow, will roar back better than ever? If Tom Brady can play at a high level for this long, Roethlisberger can do it. Sure, Brady treats his body like a temple, and NFL Insider Jay Glazer last week wrote that Roethlisberger and fitness are allergic to each other, which caused Big Ben to call Glazer and for Glazer to walk back his comments. But Roethlisberger did throw for a career-high 5,129 yards in 2018, and he has another edge on his side — he’s not Mason Rudolph.
It’s on. The Browns exact their revenge in Cincinnati and spend hours futilely searching for Hue Jackson so they can hand him a football.
The Raiders’ strategy of trading away stars, reaching in the first round of the draft and driving quarterback Derek Carr out of town in order to tank and draft Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in 2021 will lead to this. Tank for Trevor means win for Cleveland.
A winning streak is nice, but it’s tough to go into a bye at 2-6, which the Browns know from going into last year’s bye at 2-5.
Texans master strategist Bill O’Brien has managed to make the playoffs in four of his six seasons with Houston, which is why his decision to trade away leading receiver DeAndre Hopkins this offseason makes so much sense. After trying to trade away Odell Beckham Jr. at halftime before realizing OBJ is a Brown, O’Brien will beg Deshaun Watson to save the win, which, of course, Watson will do.
Prepare for more proof that the Browns not drafting Carson Wentz in 2016 was a devastating mistake that the Browns will never recover from, as the Eagles will come to town and stomp the Browns with Jalen Hurts at quarterback. Wentz will be out with the fourth major injury of his five-year career.
Joe Schobert will make 37 tackles to lead the Jaguars to their first win of the season.
What will happen when the Browns don’t commit 18 penalties against the Titans, like they did in last season’s opener? They’ll win.
If this was a game with division implications, you could imagine the Browns defense buckling down like Buffalo’s defense did in December against the Ravens a year ago. The Bills held Baltimore to a season-low 257 yards and limited Jackson to a combined 185 yards rushing and passing, but the Josh Allen offense couldn’t do enough for Buffalo to get a win. Maybe Mayfield could do more in a December matchup that mattered and the Browns could plan for Jackson and get a pass rush and … well, that’s only if the game matters. It won’t if the Browns, pessimistically speaking, come in with only three wins.
You know Giants quarterback Daniel Jones has been waiting for his chance to take on Mayfield ever since the GQ article from last year where Mayfield appeared to make a disparaging remark about Daniels, but said he was taken out of context. The NFL last year learned not to mess with Danny Dimes. Yes, he averaged 327 passing yards and threw 13 touchdowns passes and zero interceptions against Detroit, the New York Jets and Washington, and averaged 225 passing yards and threw 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in his other nine starts. But still, watch out for that Danny Dimes revenge game.
Somehow, this will be the sixth straight year the Jets and the Browns will play. The only explanation is that the universe demands it. The No. 3 pick in 2018, Sam Darnold is 11-15 as a starting quarterback with 36 touchdowns and 28 interceptions. The No. 1 pick in 2018, Mayfield is 12-17 as a starting QB with 49 touchdowns and 35 interceptions. First one to Canton wins.
Once again, the Browns will beat Pittsburgh in Cleveland. Please remember to take Myles Garrett out before the final series.
So that’s a path to 4-12, assuming three games against 38-year-old QBs in Roethlisberger and Rivers; four games against young QBs in Burrow, Jones and Dwayne Haskins; and three games against mediocre QBs in Darnold, Derek Carr and Gardner Minshew, are too much to handle. The other six games against Jackson, Prescott, Watson, Wentz and Ryan Tannehill won’t be easy.
But there doesn’t seem to be a stretch of five weeks in there in which the opponents at the end of the year will be 59-21. Is Dallas-Indy-Pittsburgh the toughest three-week run? Or Las Vegas-Houston-Philadelphia? Or Tennessee-Baltimore-N.Y. Giants?
This is a schedule that should let the Browns be who they are. A year ago, they were a team that left me six games off in my prediction. They won six games instead of 12.
I could imagine being off by six again with this 4-12 prediction. That doesn’t mean the Browns winning negative-2 games. It means maybe winning 10 and making the playoffs, if you can get past the pessimism.