Predicting the Cleveland Browns' Most Important Games of 2014-15 Season
Over a 16-game schedule each week is important, but there are specific matchups that will be vital for the Cleveland Browns in this 2014-15 season.
This September marks the beginning of yet another regime change and fresh start for the Browns. It is full of much of the same tentative optimism and worry that welcomed in the previous leaders of Rob Chudzinski, Joe Banner and Michael Lombardi.
Now general manager Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine take the reigns of a franchise that has only two winning seasons since 1999.
The schedule makers took little pity on Cleveland. The Browns battle AFC North opponents three times over the first five Sundays, have an early bye in Week 4 and play 2013 divisional champions in three of their final four contests.
Those trials and tribulations can also be viewed as a huge opportunity. Striking fast and ending strong gives the Browns a chance to prove that the club's culture is finally changing for the better.
Let's explore when and why the following five games are so key for Cleveland.
Week 1: At Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Meeting: In the season finale on Dec. 29, 2013, Cleveland was soundly defeated 20-7 in Pittsburgh.
All-time Series Record: 57-65-0
Opening day has not been kind to the Cleveland Browns since the club's return in 1999. A 1-14 record, 13 of those losses have come at home, is a string of futility unmatched in the NFL.
To make matters worse, the franchise begins its 2014 campaign in Pittsburgh, a place where it has only won on a single occasion since 2000.
New Cleveland head coach Mike Pettine seems excited to be starting the year in Steel Town:
"Browns at Steelers in Week 1, in your first game as an NFL head coach? It doesn't get any better than that," Pettine was quoted as saying in release from the Browns. "I love this division. (Courtesy of Cleveland.com)
Week 1 is the most important game of the season for Cleveland because it kick-starts the Ray Farmer/Mike Pettine era. Will it be the same old Browns or are fans going to see a noticeable shift toward a winning culture?
A victory over a division rival could provide a huge momentum boost that would carry over to the team's home opener against the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 14. A loss, especially a lopsided one, has the possibility to send Cleveland into an early downward spiral.
Prior to the draft, it seems on paper that Pittsburgh can be had. It's missed the playoffs in consecutive years and is getting older. Maybe a young, aggressive Browns group seizes the moment to jump up and bite the veteran Steelers.
Week 3: Baltimore Ravens
Last Meeting: On Nov. 3, 2013, the Browns earned a 24-18 victory at home over Baltimore.
All-time Series Record: 8-22-0
Cleveland's bye week comes early this year, and it occurs following its third game. It just so happens that the confrontation is against a heated rival in Baltimore.
As you can see from the above all-time series record, the Browns have not played well against their former selves. However, the timing may be as close to ideal as possible to welcome in the Ravens.
The club will be playing in front of the Dawg Pound for the second straight week and hopefully have any home-opener jitters taken care of from the previous Sunday. FirstEnergy Stadium is also the place where the Browns defeated Baltimore in 2013 in what turned out to be their final win of the season.
This is going to be the second AFC North matchup in three weeks, and a victory is key to help Cleveland keep pace in the division. It's also another opportunity for the Mike Pettine coaching staff to send a definitive message that this team is no longer a doormat.
Going into the bye with positivity and some momentum is important for a young team, especially one that is learning new systems. Having confidence in the game plan and producing results in the win column can catapult the Browns through the week off and into the second quarter of this season.
Week 5: At Tennessee Titans
Last Meeting: Heading into their bye week, the Browns were dominated at home 31-13 on Oct. 2, 2011.
All-time Series Record: 33-28-0
Winning going into the bye week is important, but the way a club comes out of it is even more vital. This is the task that Cleveland must embrace, and it'll need to do it on the road.
Heading into Tennessee, the Browns face a Titans franchise that went 7-9 in 2013 and also underwent a coaching change in the offseason. One-and-done Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton now holds the same position in "Music City" and will surely be looking to upend his former employer.
Depending on how the first trio of games goes, being successful in this Week 5 confrontation could either act as a fresh start or as a continuation of early season success.
Regardless, this meeting wraps up the first quarter of Cleveland's 2014 campaign and will be used as a measuring stick to grade how the new coaches and players performed.
This Tennessee contest also kicks off five straight games where the orange and brown face teams that did not make the playoffs a year ago. Getting off to a strong start here would be a great springboard of confidence and could be the catalyst for the Browns going on a run in the middle part of the season.
Week 10: At Cincinnati Bengals
Last Meeting: This 41-20 defeat on Nov. 17, 2013, kicked off a seven-game losing streak to end the season.
All-time Series Record: 38-43-0
Week 10 is the only prime-time game scheduled for Cleveland, and it goes down as a battle of Ohio.
By this point in the season, the Browns are ideally a well-oiled machine, comfortable with their new offensive and defensive systems.
The club will be under the lights of Thursday Night Football, and this provides it a chance to showcase its overall progression to the world.
At this point in the schedule, if Cleveland owns a .500 record or better then it should still be in the running to take the division if parity in the AFC North is similar to what it was in 2013.
It would have already played Pittsburgh twice and Baltimore once, meaning that this will be the Browns' fourth opportunity to influence their own divisional fortunes. When it comes to playoff hopes, this could be a make-or-break matchup.
Another important point is that the franchise is going to be finishing off three straight winnable games (according to last year's results anyway) versus the Jaguars, Raiders and Buccaneers. The Browns could very well be stringing together a nice series of wins at this point.
In that scenario, a "W" at Paul Brown Stadium keeps the team both relevant in the postseason race and continues to build up player confidence as the group enters the remaining seven regular-season contests.
Week 13: At Buffalo Bills
Last Meeting: Oct. 3, 2013, saw the Browns win a wild one over the Bills 37-24 on Thursday Night Football.
All-time Series Record: 11-7-0
This Week 13 matchup is interesting for multiple reasons:
1. Head coach Mike Pettine returns to Buffalo where he was defensive coordinator in 2013.
He led the Bills to a fourth-ranked pass defense and created a dynamic pass rush, which is something at this point in the season the Dawg Pound hopes has been recreated.
2. This is the final team the Browns play that had a below .500 record last season.
Not taking the upcoming draft and whatever injuries arise into account, that stretch of opponents looks quite daunting. That is why defeating Buffalo becomes integral. It could be Cleveland's last "winnable" game.
3. A nice rivalry has developed over the past few seasons between these two storied franchises.
In an unexpected Thursday night thriller last October, the Browns upended the Bills in a matchup that changed the course of both teams' seasons.
Each starting quarterback went down to knee injuries, and that sent the clubs into downward spirals the following weeks.
On a positive note, it was a breakout game for wide receiver Travis Benjamin, who terrorized the visitors' special teams. The speedy Benjamin galloped back seven punts for 179 total yards, which included a 79-yard run returned for a touchdown.
Andy McNamara is an international sports broadcaster and journalist
Follow Andy on Twitter @AndyMc81