The last time the Cleveland Browns played a must-win game, Tim Couch was the quarterback and Butch Davis was the head coach.
For the new-look Browns to prove their mettle, they need to outplay the league’s cellar-dwellers. If they’re to stop being viewed as bottom-feeders, themselves, they need to rise to the next level and start playing like contenders—or, at the very least, contenders in waiting.
Excitement has been building in Cleveland since Mike Holmgren’s arrival as team president in December. The addition of GM Tom Heckert, and a strong draft over the summer, gave fans even more hope—as did a solid showing in the exhibition season, particularly by quarterbacks Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace.
The Browns aren’t a championship caliber team yet—probably not a playoff team, either—but they are in a position to turn things around in 2010.
For that to happen, they need to start fast. Victories over Tampa Bay and Kansas City in the first two weeks of the season would be the strongest indicator that things are headed in the right direction.
The Buccaneers won three games in 2009, while the Chiefs won four. Little is expected to change in Tampa, but the Chiefs are viewed by many as a sleeper in the AFC West.
If you’re the Browns, forget it. You’ve got to be the sleeper in Week 2, not Kansas City—or it’s back to the cellar, and Katie, bar the door.
Clearly, the opener at Tampa Bay is a game the Browns have to win. They’ve bolstered a weak pass defense, solidified an already decent rushing game, and improved their passing attack with the shrewd acquisitions of Delhomme and Wallace.
Granted, skeptics still abound where Delhomme is concerned.
Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com, unimpressed by Delhomme’s stellar numbers in the preseason, says flatly that he "isn't that good.” (Prisco also ranks the Buccaneers and Chiefs ahead of Cleveland as the new season dawns.)
However, the Browns' new quarterbacks clearly represent an upgrade over last year’s tandem of Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson. Both Delhomme and Wallace were efficient during exhibition play and will be counted on to extend that into the regular season.
The Browns match up well against the Buccaneers, which is why an opening day victory is imperative. The major question mark is Cleveland’s defensive line, and their ability to stop the run.
It’s now or never where Rob Ryan’s troops are concerned. The regular season is here, and it’s time for them to show the kind of improvement that the rest of the team has displayed.
Week 2 is a different story.
The general consensus is that the Chiefs are an improved team, even to the point of making noise in their division. By that measuring stick, they could be expected to steal a win at Browns Stadium.
Regardless, the Browns need to accept the challenge and execute a game plan that will result in a victory. Ryan’s defense will again be the key. The Chiefs have a respectable running game, one that the Browns must neutralize if they’re to have any chance of winning.
Why are the first two games so crucial? Because the seven that follow pose a serious challenge for a team trying to improve its standing in the NFL pecking order.
Baltimore in Week 3 will represent a cold slap in the face for the Browns, and the Ravens will be followed, in order, by Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and New Orleans. It doesn’t get any easier after the bye week, as the Patriots and Jets come to town.
In other words, things could get ugly in a hurry.
If the Browns lose one, or both, of their first two games, the season could quickly spiral out of control. An 0-2 Cleveland team would struggle to find the fortitude to turn around its fortunes against the likes of the Ravens, Saints, or Jets.
If they establish themselves with wins over Tampa Bay and Kansas City, however, the Browns will prove that the season-ending, four-game win streak of a year ago was no fluke—and, in so doing, put themselves in a position to possibly claim a couple of wins from the league’s elite during the weeks that follow.
That would put the league on notice that respectability has, at long last, returned to the shores of Lake Erie.