After losing seven straight games to conclude the 2013 season, the Cleveland Browns enter 2014 looking to win more than five games for the first time since 2007.
It's certainly fair to say that Browns fans have been tortured over the past two-plus decades since Cleveland was a perennial playoff contender in the 1980s. The suffering reached a low point when Cleveland was without a franchise for three seasons in the late 1990s. However, since the Browns were revived in 1999, the team has experienced just two winning seasons and one postseason berth.
As a result, the Browns will yet again begin a new season with low expectations.
However, the team has a new head coach in Mike Pettine and made several offseason moves to spark progress. Some of the new arrivals include safety Donte Whitner, linebacker Karlos Dansby, receivers Andrew Hawkins and Nate Burleson, and running back Ben Tate.
Looking at Cleveland's 2014 regular-season schedule, it's not inconceivable that the Browns could finally snap their six-year losing streak and contend for the playoffs.
|2014 Cleveland Browns Regular-Season Schedule|
|1||Sep. 7||Steelers||1 p.m.||CBS|
|2||Sep. 14||Saints||1 p.m.||Fox|
|3||Sep. 21||Ravens||1 p.m.||CBS|
|5||Oct. 5||Titans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|6||Oct. 12||Steelers||1 p.m.||CBS|
|7||Oct. 19||Jaguars||1 p.m.||CBS|
|8||Oct. 26||Raiders||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|9||Nov. 2||Buccaneers||1 p.m.||Fox|
|10||Nov. 6||Bengals||8:25 p.m.||NFL Network|
|11||Nov. 16||Texans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|12||Nov. 23||Falcons||1 p.m.||CBS|
|13||Nov. 30||Bills||1 p.m.||CBS|
|14||Dec. 7||Colts||1 p.m.||CBS|
|15||Dec. 14||Bengals||1 p.m.||CBS|
|16||Dec. 21||Panthers||1 p.m.||CBS|
|17||Dec. 28||Ravens||1 p.m.||CBS|
Cleveland will face off against its familiar AFC North division rivals six times this season but will need to fare better against the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers in 2014 to have any shot of the playoffs.
The Browns went just 2-4 in the division a year ago, posting home wins over Cincinnati and Baltimore before their bye week. But after a 2-1 start against the AFC North, Cleveland concluded the year with three straight losses in the division.
If Cleveland can at least finish .500 against the AFC North this season, it'll have an excellent shot at being in the mix for an AFC wild-card berth like wide receiver Josh Gordon predicted this offseason, per NFL on ESPN:
Even free-agent addition Paul McQuistan, a veteran offensive lineman who returned to Cleveland after three seasons in Seattle, is confident the Browns can turn the tide in 2014, per ClevelandBrowns.com:
I really like the direction this team is headed. It was a great experience being in Seattle and it’s something I will always keep close to me, but I’m turning the pages and writing a new chapter in Cleveland. I think it’s a good group of guys and I’m excited to get in there and work hard and go from there. Ben Tate is a good guy, but it’s always fun, regardless of who is back there, to try and get him some yards and that’s what I intend on doing. It’s fun when you’re winning and it’s a great feeling to have in the locker room, so hopefully we can get that going in Cleveland.
One of the main reasons for optimism is the fact the Browns will play a handful of winnable games outside the division this fall, per Cleveland sports fan Jon Tarnowski on Twitter:
The Browns will play the NFC South and the AFC South in 2014, drawing Houston and Indianapolis at home. The Colts are a playoff-caliber team coming off a trip to the AFC divisional round last January, but the Texans are fresh off a 2-14 season and are led by a first-year head coach in Bill O'Brien.
Road games against Tennessee and Jacksonville are also winnable matchups for the Browns. The Jaguars went 4-12 a year ago and finished just 1-7 at home. Meanwhile, the Titans were 7-9 with a dismal 3-5 home record.
The Browns are sure to be massive underdogs in out-of-conference matchups with New Orleans (home) and Carolina (road) this season, but showdowns with Tampa Bay (home) and Atlanta (road) are both winnable games. Keep in mind that the Buccaneers and Falcons combined to win eight games in 2013. What's more, the Bucs were just 1-7 on the road a season ago, while Atlanta went just 1-3 against the AFC last year.
However, both should be markedly improved this year. Atlanta will be healthy and still boasts plenty of weapons, while the Bucs have new leadership under Lovie Smith and will roll with Josh McCown under center.
Lastly, games against Buffalo (road) and Oakland (home) offer two additional opportunities for victory. Sure, both teams are expected to be better in 2014 after combining to win just 10 games last season, but if Cleveland responds to Pettine and can keep its key players healthy, the Browns no doubt have a favorable road to the playoffs.
As already mentioned, if the Browns are going to have any hope of contending for a playoff berth, they'll have to fare better against the AFC North. That starts with finding a way to beat division rival Baltimore on the road.
The Browns haven't beaten the Ravens in Charm City since 2007, and a road win over the Super Bowl XLVII champions in 2014 could propel Cleveland to new heights.
While it's been seven years since the Browns beat the Ravens on the road, it's been more than a decade since they knocked off the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh has owned Cleveland over the years, and now, after consecutive 8-8 seasons, the Steelers are finally vulnerable. Therefore, if the Browns can't end their skid in the Steel City this season, it may continue for a long, long time.
Of course, every game will be crucial for Cleveland this season as the Browns look to build on a four-win 2013 campaign. But the first goal should be to improve in the division and take care of business against the teams they see twice a year.
Follow Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Patrick Clarke on Twitter.