The Cleveland Browns are this year’s Kansas City Chiefs.
That is what I wrote in my season predictions when I picked the Browns to steal one of the Wild Card playoff spots in the AFC.
Last year, I predicted the same fate for the Kansas City Chiefs. I looked at the team’s influx of young talent and their favorable schedule and declared a 10-6 finish and a Wild Card spot.
They did me one better and won the AFC West.
It didn’t play out exactly as I had envisioned it in my head. I didn’t think the Chiefs would beat the Chargers at all. I had them beating the Raiders at least once. I figured they’d sweep the Broncos. Still, the Chiefs got a few lucky bounces and won most of the games they had to win.
This year, I think the Browns do the same thing. While I am aware that the AFC North is a much tougher division than the AFC West was in 2010, the Chiefs proved you don’t have to dominate your division to sneak into the playoffs. KC went 2-4 in the AFC West last season, beating the Chargers and Broncos once each while losing the rest. What got them into the playoffs was going 4-0 against NFC West.
Guess which NFC division the AFC North and the Browns face this season?
Perusing Cleveland’s early season schedule makes the Chiefs’ early 2010 schedule look like murderers row.
The Browns open things at home against the hapless Bengals. Cinci is a mess and if the Browns are as good as I think they are, they’ll handle the Bengals.
In Week Two, they head out on the road to take on what is likely to be a Manningless Colts team. Suddenly, a game that would have likely been a sure loss for the Browns is looking more and more winnable by the day. They might just be able to go to Indi and steal a road win.
Next up on the schedule? A home game against the Miami Dolphins. With a new running back in Reggie Bush and big questions still lingering at QB, the Dolphins are no juggernaut. With the game being in Cleveland, this is a winnable contest.
Week Four, the Browns stay home and host the Tennessee Titans.
Then they have their Bye Week.
We saw last season the importance of getting out to a fast start. The Chiefs were the NFL’s last undefeated team at 3-0. The San Diego Chargers were never able to catch up. Looking at Cleveland’s first five games, it isn’t crazy to suggest they could begin the year 3-1 or even 4-0. Can you imagine the ruckus the media will make if the Cleveland Browns are 4-0 in mid-October?
After that, the schedule toughens a bit but still remains manageable.
Sunday, October 16 at Oakland Raiders
Sunday, October 23 vs. Seattle Seahawks
Sunday, October 30 at San Francisco 49ers
Sunday, November 6 at Houston Texans
Sunday, November 13 vs. St. Louis Rams
Sunday, November 20 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
Sunday, November 27 at Cincinnati Bengals
Looks a lot like the Chiefs’ 2010 schedule doesn’t it? In fact, the 2011 Cleveland Browns and the 2010 Chiefs share nine common opponents. In those nine games, the upstart Chiefs went 6-3.
The amazing thing is that Cleveland doesn’t face the Steelers or the Ravens until December.
That is where things could fall apart for the Browns. While they have perhaps the easiest first 11 games of any team in league history, their homestretch is absolutely brutal.
Sunday, December 4 vs. Baltimore Ravens, 1:00PM
Thursday, December 8 at Pittsburgh Steelers, 8:20PM
Sunday, December 18 at Arizona Cardinals, 4:15PM
Saturday, December 24 at Baltimore Ravens, 1:00PM
Sunday, January 1 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, 1:00PM
Not exactly a cakewalk to the playoffs, is it?
Still, if the Browns have taken advantage of their early season schedule, they’ll have boat loads of confidence heading into those key divisional contests in December. The NFL season is long. By the time the Browns meet the Steelers and Ravens, who knows what those teams will look like? Injuries could have weakened them. Bad weather conditions in the northeast could even the playing field. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the Browns could steal one here and there from the lords of the AFC North. The Browns may have been crappy for over a decade but it hasn’t always been that way and Cleveland is no easy place to play in December when the Browns are contending.
Every season in the NFL there is a surprise team. I watched the Browns this preseason and they looked much improved. They’ve settled very nicely into Pat Shurmur’s West Coast Offense. Colt McCoy looks very comfortable in the pocket and while he might not have the strongest arm, he is deadly accurate. Throw in a tough offensive line and a power running game lead by Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty and you have an offense that could nickel and dime their way to some points. On defense, there is a lot of young talent lead by second year CB Joe Hayden who was terrific as a rookie.
With such an easy schedule, this could be the year of the AFC North. Don’t be shocked to see three playoff teams come out of that division, a development that would leave a favorite like the New York Jets or New England Patriots on the outside looking in.
Of course every NFL season is different. Schedules are never as easy or as hard as they appear to be before the action gets underway. Still, it appears the Browns and Chiefs have switched places. Cleveland had one of the hardest schedules in the league last season, while the Chiefs had one of the easiest. This year, with games against the Jets, Packers, Patriots and Steelers, the Chiefs could struggle.
But the Browns could rise.
Cleveland teams know heartbreak. They deal horribly with any sort of hype. But they seem to excel when they emerge as the underdog. They’ll choke in the end of course, but I’m not predicting them to win the Super Bowl. Just make the playoffs.
And as last year’s Kansas City Chiefs taught us, with this schedule, anything is possible.