The signs are unmistakable. July has come and gone, fantasy draft invitations are going out and I keep smelling ghost chicken wings at ten in the morning. Football season is coming, and Browns fans are rightfully excited.
We've got a new owner, a handful of incredibly exciting rookies and a relentless pass-defense in an increasingly pass-happy league. Logistical considerations of new ownership aside, it's a fun time to be a Browns fan. Playoff fantasies even tease the imagination of the more idealistic among us, but there are still a few big hurdles to consider.
The AFC North is consistently one of the toughest divisions in football. The only factor that keeps it from being the best outright is, well, us. But NFL destiny can turn on a dime, and with a few strategic wins, our beloved Browns could find themselves in playoff contention sooner than we thought.
Here are the seven wins they need to get there and the fictional 90s villain each team represents.
Week 9 - Home
Film: The Mighty Ducks (1992)
The Ravens are the Hawks to our Ducks, the Riley to our Bombay. Many Browns fans harbor a special hunger for revenge when it comes to this team; there's a painful history here. And as we anticipate the showdown in our own house, we fantasize about glaring over to their sidelines, mustering all the intensity we can and declaring, You're going down, Riley.
Heavily favored and top five in the AP Pro32 NFL Power Rankings, the Ravens are a daunting squad to a young offense. But with Travis Benjamin and Josh Gordon breathing new life into Cleveland's receiving corps and Suggs' immediate future in jeopardy, it's entirely possible to "go for the 'W'." This is an opportunity to secure a major division win and notch both a moral and statistical victory.
The only question is, who's going to make the decisive Charlie-Conway-red-zone play for the win?
Week 6 - Home
Film: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
Brothers by circumstance and foes by choice, Austin Powers and Dr. Evil reveal the complex relationship of both 90s fictional characters and Ohio football teams.
Bengals and Browns fans share a governor and a sort of heart-shaped geographical border. We run into each other at Ohio State games and detox the week before Christmas Ale is available on tap. But make no mistake; come football season, it is a question of good vs. (Dr.) evil.
In-state nemesis Cincinnati Bengals return a promising young offense in A.J. Green and Andy Dalton. Coming off a respectable 9-7 season, the Bengals are simultaneously the most accessible team in the division and the most dangerous if underestimated.
A home win over Cincinnati is essential for playoff contention. It's a decent matchup for our defense, and shutting down Green would be a great start.
Preseason - Away
Film: Major League (1989 - I round up)
Yes, it's a preseason game, but this is a huge opportunity to test the chemistry of the new offense and to make a statement to the league.
The Roger Dorn comparison will perhaps be my most controversial, but I'm going for it. Dorn, like many Detroit teams, torments and often thwarts Ricky Vaughn's good-faith attempts to help his struggling team. As a Cleveland fan, I celebrate most righteously when a win comes at Detroit's expense. It's in my blood. However, we do share a few common woes with the state up north, sports related and otherwise.
And sometimes, when they are facing a big-market, heavily favored team, I silently think to myself, Detroit, strike this mother****** out.
That said, Cleveland needs to win this game. While it's not relevant to playoffs, it is a chance to be taken seriously. We should take it.
Week 3 - Home
Film: Varsity Blues, The Big Green, etc. (various)
In nearly every 90s sports film, there is an ambiguous opponent that gives the protagonists a nail biter in the first round of the fake playoffs. They ultimately lose, and no one remembers. Was it the Tigers? Or just the 'red team'? Nobody wonders.
This is that game. Don't get me wrong, the Bills are not a pushover team, but it's two bottom-half small-market squads duking it out in Week 3. Not exactly Yankees vs. Red Sox.
This is a numbers game. If the Browns are going to end the season with a winning record, they need to put away these under-the-radar match-ups. And I'll be watching every minute, no matter how many Chargers fans yell at me to change the channel.
Week 7 - Away
Film: Hook (1991)
The Indianapolis Colts recently cleaned house, letting go of Manning, Jeff Saturday, Pierre Garcon and an admittedly underwhelming Joseph Addai.
In considering their 90s doppelganger, I couldn't help but recall Dustin Hoffman's rendering of Captain Hook. He was a formidable, intimidating foe (Luck) surrounded by hapless pirates (the Colts) and the loyal support of Smee (Freeney and Mathis). Plus, they both have awesome facial hair. Andrew Luck's beard has it's own Twitter.
Like the Bills, this is simply a game we cannot lose. The Browns are at enough of a disadvantage with a tough division, and they can't get complacent with these mid-season games.
Basically, we need to be Rufio but better at sword fighting (spoiler alert.)
Week 16 - Away
Film: Happy Gilmore (1996)
This has nothing to do with the fact that Brandon Weeden sometimes reminds me of Adam Sandler; grow up.
The main basis for comparison here is hype. There's been a lot of buzz surrounding Payton Manning's arrival in Denver. The media loves it, and many are speculating that the Broncos might just be for real this year. Eric Decker's down, but certainly not out, and is proving to be the kind of receiver that has huge potential with the right kind of arm at his disposal.
As Shooter McGavin once said of Shooter McGavin, "This is Shooter's tour. I've worked hard my whole life, paid my dues, and now it's Shooter's turn." The Broncos have certainly paid some dues since the Elway era, and there's no doubt the arrival of Manning is causing some McGavin-esque impatience.
The Browns need to hit the ridiculously unrealistic proverbial putt and put this one away on unfriendly turf.
Week 17 - Away
Show: Saved by the Bell (1989-1993)
Whether it's Marvin Nedick or Dan and Stan Clegg, Valley is the purest, most incurable form of concentrated evil. They are not to be trusted. If someone dumps frogs in the swimming pool, you know where to look. If a suspiciously cute girl seems interested in you, don't fall for it. She is probably from Valley.
We have to beat the Steelers this year. This is important not only for the division standings, but also for our dignity and the spackling paste on the drywall behind my couch.
And this is the year they can finally do it. We're in a two-year dry spell, and the fans and players are hungry. The Browns have a fresh new offense, and Roethlisberger has a crusty old beard.
Playoffs or bust. Let's go Browns!