Cleveland Browns: Ranking the Most Important Games on the 2012 Schedule
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Dead last in the league is usually good for maybe a win or two, which is two or three less than last season's 4-12 record. But it takes either highly creative or fairly lazy thinking to assert that swapping Peyton Hillis for Trent Richardson at RB, Colt McCoy for Brandon Weeden at QB and Tony Pashos for Mitchell Schwartz at RT will not only fail to improve the team's win column, but actively reduce it.
Another 4-12 season isn't what Browns President Mike Holmgren envisioned when he talked about a "big jump" this year either (via CBS Cleveland). That's more of a sideways shuffle.
So where do those extra wins come from? Here are the five most crucial games the Cleveland Browns need to win to take that big leap.
5. Home Opener against the Philadelphia Eagles
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The game Sept. 9 against the Eagles this year poses another difficult challenge. After all, Eagles QB Michael Vick has prophesied a coming dynasty for the organization. They've totally flipped the script over there, from last year's backup QB talking "dream team" to the starter modestly tilting the bat toward "dynasty."
As fairly heavy underdawgs (sic), the Browns must employ that knowledge to exploit any weaknesses. The teams match up in the third preseason game, which will give each other a taste, but a big step for the Browns in flipping their own script would be to come out of the gates with a bang.
4. Week 15 against the Washington Redskins
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The Browns offered up a hefty sum in their bid to land Baylor QB Robert Griffin III. They lost out on that. Instead they got a blue-chip RB, a solid arm in Brandon Weeden and a promising young RT in Mitchell Schwartz (at least, according to five-time pro-bowler Joe Thomas). They also get whomever GM Tom Heckert nabs in the first round 2013.
Brandon Weeden came out with the win over Griffin's Baylor in 2011 (his team also beat Andrew Luck's Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl). They'll all get to do it again—pro-style—in 2012.
But because of the Browns' near-miss with Griffin, this game's going to matter a little more in Cleveland.
3. Week 6 against the Cincinnati Bengals
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The 2012 schedule is a little hairy. The Browns face wave after wave of 2011 contenders, including every other team in the good ol' AFC North. If the Browns expect to be contenders themselves, as HC Pat Shurmur himself states is the goal, it starts with the division itself.
“We’re trying to win our division which secures us a spot in the playoffs, and gives us a chance to win the biggest one, and that’s what we’re trying to do," Shurmur said at his press conference (via ClevelandBrowns.com) following the first day of training camp.
The Browns had a shot in five of the six divisional games in 2011. They either held leads or kept the game within one score for most of the clock. Alas, they went 0-6. They must start peeling away wins from divisional opponents.
Week 6 against the Bengals in Cleveland is as good a time as any. That is, of course, not to say that Week 2 in Cincinnati wouldn't be a good time as well.
2. Week 9 against the Baltimore Ravens
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It's more likely the Browns will play the Ravens harder during their second meeting of the season in Cleveland.
Again, the thinking goes that if the Browns can contend within the division, the rest of the schedule opens up.
If the Browns can enter their bye week walking on sunshine following a victory over the enemy Ravens, it bodes well for their Week 11 matchup (after the bye) in Dallas.
1. The Last Game of the Season in Pittsburgh
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By Week 17, the Browns will either not be competing for anything, or surely a Cinderella story of the year: former greenskeeper about to become Masters champion in the hearts of Clevelanders.
Regardless, the Browns players should be foaming for this game. The temperature of their tenacity will be a good measure of their dedication to their coach and organization, should their playoff hopes be dashed by this point. And just perhaps, certainly, if not dashed: a sumbody, a contendah.
These Browns are reminded daily on Twitter of the thirst in Cleveland for yinzer blood.
A well-timed victory over the team to the East can quite literally save heads from rolling down the shores of Lake Erie at the end of a more-nadir-than-zenith of a season. Unless, unless...