2011 NFL Schedule: Best and Worst of What's in Store for the Browns This Season
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You can find the full schedule here. The Browns' strength of schedule is ranked 21st hardest in the NFL, and their opponents posted a collective 126-130 record last season.
Looking over the schedule as a whole, you'll find that the schedule-makers weren't exactly kind to the Browns, but it definitely could have been worse.
It's terribly early to start predicting wins and losses, but here are what look to be three of the Browns' most difficult games as well as three of their most winnable games.
There are a number of other games on the schedule that could prove to be equally either as terribly challenging or as winnable as the games detailed here, but the following six are particularly noteworthy for their likelihood of resulting in either a clear win or a clear loss for the Browns. Plan your Sundays accordingly.
Big Challenge One: Week Two at Indianapolis Colts
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The good news for the Browns when they face down the perennially tough Colts in week two? Indy's roster is getting old. Most of the stars on the Colts' squad are getting to the point where their best years are behind them. Reggie Wayne is starting to show his age, as is Peyton Manning.
The problem with a guy like Manning though, is that the fact that he's getting older doesn't mean he's suddenly beatable. At all. Manning is also entering what most expect to be his final season in Indianapolis, so you can bet the Colts are going to make their run now before their legendary gunslinger hangs it up. Manning and his Colts are always tough to best, but they'll be even tougher now that it seems they're playing on borrowed time.
If the Browns want to win this one, they'll have to exploit Indy's notoriously shaky defense, take advantage of the holes in the Colts' running game, and find a way to contain the formidable Mr. Manning.
This one isn't a lost cause for the Browns, and they showed in 2010 that they were capable of beating teams that looked far better than them on paper. But it's going to be quite the challenge, especially in just the second week of the season when the numerous young Browns players are still getting acclimated to the regular season and the defense is still getting the hang of the new 4-3 scheme.
Big Challenge Two: Week 13 vs. Baltimore Ravens
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You can go ahead and include Browns at Ravens during week 16 as well. Nothing like playing in a division with both the Ravens and the Steelers to kill any advantage you might otherwise hope to gain in terms of strength of schedule.
The Browns almost got the Ravens for one win last year, and there's no reason they can't do that much again. But it won't be easy at all to take even one game from Baltimore, much less both showdowns.
The Ravens were a good team in 2010 and will be just as good, if not better, this season. Their defense is devastating to the run, so it will be here more than against perhaps any other opponent that the Browns will need to step up their passing game.
This is one matchup that absolutely cannot be won on Hillis' shoulders alone, so the Browns defense and passing game is going to have to be at their best in order to come out on top.
Big Challenge Three: Week 14 at Pittsburgh Steelers and Week 17 vs Steelers
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I know, I know, I included two games here. But the unfortunate thing about the Steelers is, they're going to be a huge challenge for the Browns to beat, whether they're at home or on the road.
Whatever you think of the Steelers from a fan perspective, nothing can change the fact that they're a tremendously, tremendously good football team. The majority of their biggest weapons will still be with the team in 2011, and after losing the Super Bowl last year, they're going to be out for blood.
Add to that the fact that the Browns ended 2010 on a sour note when they were trounced by the Steelers 41-9 in the final game of the season, and the intimidation factor alone is enough to make you want to cry just thinking about facing Pittsburgh this year.
But as good as they are, the Steelers are not invincible. The Browns aren't a great team just yet, but they're getting better all the time, and if everything goes to plan, they should make the Steelers very nervous by the time they meet them this season.
Interestingly, the Browns face Pittsburgh on the last day of their season, which happens to be New Year's Day, 2012. Vowing to beat the Steelers seems like an excellent New Year's resolution to me...
Winnable Matchup One: Week One vs Cincinnati Bengals
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Now for the first of the good news: the NFL schedule makers threw the Dawg Pound a bone the first week of the season, pitting them against Cincinnati in their opening tilt.
To say that there's trouble in Bengal Town is an understatement. Their quarterback showed open hostility toward the team over the offseason and declared he would retire rather than keep playing for them. Their receivers and defense seriously underachieved in 2010. And they've drafted poorly in recent years, leaving them without much depth to absorb any of these setbacks.
That's all very good news for the Browns in the first week of the season. Last year the Browns took one of two from the Bengals, and Cincinnati appears to have, if anything, taken a step backward since then.
Granted, division opponents are always tough no matter how much they struggle in general. But if the Browns are going to open against another AFC North team, playing Cincinnati at home is about the best they could hope for.
If the Browns are as good as we're currently projecting them to be, they should be able to handle the Bengals deftly in the season opener, and hopefully, beat them a second time when they go to Cincinnati in week 12.
Winnable Matchup Two: Week 10 vs St. Louis Rams
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There's no better advantage than having someone who knows your enemy intimately in your own camp, so the Browns have an extra leg up in week 10 when they face coach Pat Shurmur's former team.
Of course, all the insider information in the world won't help you if you're facing an opponent who is infinitely better than you are, but luckily that's not the case with the Rams.
I don't mean to suggest that the Rams are going to be a cake walk to beat. They've shown signs of serious improvement in recent years. Heck, there's a reason why we hired away their offensive coordinator to be our new head coach.
Still, if the Browns live up to their potential, they should easily be able to match St. Louis in talent, and they have an advantage in Shurmur, who will know the Rams' weaknesses as well as anyone.
True, the Rams also know Shurmur and the way he runs his game as well, but I still think the advantage goes to the Browns.
Winnable Matchup Three: Week 15 at Arizona Cardinals
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Remember when Kurt Warner led a top-notch Cardinals team to the Super Bowl in 2009? Seems like ages ago, doesn't it? Looking at what the Cardinals will likely put on the field in 2011, it may as well have been. While the Browns have spent the last two seasons getting better, the Cards have been busy getting worse.
Both teams finished 2010 at 5-11, but the Browns are a team on the rise, and the Cardinals appear to just be spinning their wheels.
It would be foolish to suggest that this, or any game on the schedule, is a "sure thing" win for the Browns. When you're coming off a 5-11 season, you don't get to call anything a lock.
Still, this one should be doable for the Browns since, at least on paper, they look like the better team. Arizona could make some surprise improvements this off-season, but it's unlikely they'll be able to turn it around over night. What else would you expect from a team that's still harboring Derek Anderson?