There is much optimism surrounding the Cleveland Browns as the 2010 season approaches. A complete makeover at the quarterback position, along with the lingering good feelings of having won the last four games in 2009 to finish 5-11, has some talking of a possible playoff spot, or at least contention for a spot, in the coming season.
To achieve anything of that kind, however, there is one factor that must be kept in mind, for it will be the critical factor as the season goes along. There has been optimism in previous years, until the weight of a strong schedule reduced the Browns to mediocrity, and this season's schedule has the potential to do the same. Any hopes the Browns have of not being an afterthought once again in the AFC North must include a look at a very difficult slate of games in 2010.
The season opens favorably, one might almost say benignly, and there is a legitimate chance that the Browns could be 2-0 out of the gate. The opener, at Tampa Bay, will, of course, be a test of conditioning, as it is sure to be sweltering in Tampa in early September. Even so, the game with the Buccaneers, who finished last year with only three wins, is a must-win, and an achievable win, right off the bat.
Next comes a home opener match-up with the Kansas City Chiefs, who also finished with a worse record than the Browns in 2009, at 4-12. Another very achievable victory.
Win these two games and visions of January football start dancing in fans' heads...ah, but then comes...
The annual visit to Baltimore to face the Ravens. Baltimore made the playoffs last year, albeit with a 9-7 record, and any game against that defense is a challenge to any team, especially a team which is still integrating new field generals as the Browns will be.
Next up are the North champion Cincinnati Bengals in Cleveland. There has been a history with Cincinnati of following up a strong season with a clinker, but history does not translate into predictable results in the present. Right now we look at the team that went 10-6 last year, and we see this as the second straight tough game.
Then the Browns welcome the 9-7 Atlanta Falcons to the lakefront. They're not a playoff team but with as good a record as the Ravens, and the third straight game against a plus-.500 team from 2009.
A visit with our friends from down the turnpike is next as the Browns take on yet another 9-7 team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Will there be a lingering effect from Pittsburgh's fade down the stretch last season parlayed with their tough off-the-field problems since? That, of course, remains to be seen, but, in the first Cleveland-Pittsburgh match-up since the Browns launched their season-ending streak last year with a win over the Steelers, Heinz Field will be itching for some revenge.
Then comes a game which used to be something to look forward to -- a visit to New Orleans...why, the first win for the reincarnated Browns in 1999 was right there in the Superdome. However, since then, there has been a little matter of the Saints being the reigning Super Bowl champions...the 16-game winning Saints of last year will surely be coached well enough by Sean Payton not to overlook anyone.
Time to sit back and lick some wounds or time to sit back and be jubilant comes next with the bye in week eight, then back to the grinder we go as the Browns take on...
The New England Patriots in Cleveland. New England is not quite the power that they were a couple of years ago, but they are still coming off of a 10-6 season and an East Division title in the AFC. And you know, even if he does not come out and say so, that Bill Belichick loves nothing more than to return to the place where he was seen as a villain and leaving with a victory.
The 9-7 New York Jets invade Cleveland next, coming off a playoff berth of their own. Mark Sanchez will only continue to grow, and the gauntlet of tough games will not be any easier with the Jets on the schedule.
Seven games...five playoff teams and two teams that did not make the playoffs but still finished 9-7...a cumulative record of 69-43 in the last regular season, for an opponents' winning percentage of .616, and seasoned with a Super Bowl winner makes for a potentially poisonous brew.
Finally the Browns catch a break in their tenth game as they visit Florida again and take on the 7-9 Jacksonville Jaguars. If such a trip can be seen as a break. But the Jags seem to be a middle-of-the-pack team at best this year, and if any of the previous eight games should be a win, this is the one.
Next the 8-8 Carolina Panthers come to Cleveland Browns Stadium. Rest assured that there will be intrigue galore, assuming that Jake Delhomme is able to take on his former team as the Browns' quarterback.
Then the Browns make a trip to LeBron-world and face the 7-9 Miami Dolphins in Cleveland's third trip to the Sunshine State of the season. LeBron aside, it is never easy to go into Miami and win.
Returning to the frozen north, the Browns next make a trip to Buffalo to face what seems almost a division game against the Bills...almost a division game since it seems that Cleveland has faced Buffalo every year since about 1950, in a quirk of scheduling. Cleveland has had it all over the Bills in recent years, and with Buffalo coming off of a 6-10 season, this is a game the Browns may need to have to retain any ghost of a chance, because the schedule ends with the return matches with, consecutively, the Bengals, the Ravens and, to end the season in Cleveland, the Steelers.
And there we have it...quite a schedule. The seven-game death march from Game 3 through Game 9 should pretty much decide if this year will be something special, or something to forget.
I look forward to the challenges along the way.