The Cleveland Browns are going to surprise a lot of people this season. You want a bold prediction?
Cleveland is going to win nine games this year.
You know what else? They will be one of the NFL's best teams through Week 12.
With quarterback Colt McCoy spearheading the offense, Peyton Hillis continuing his ascent to superstardom (although he may already be there), and a completely revamped defense, the Cleveland Browns are going to have their first winning season since 2007.
The Browns were blessed with a ridiculously easy schedule for the first three quarters of the 2011 NFL regular season, and I firmly believe they are going to take advantage.
McCoy has looked magnificent in the preseason so far, tossing four touchdowns and no picks, and the fans in Cleveland are starting to get cautiously optimistic. No. 12 showed flashes of brilliance last season in back-to-back games against two of the AFC's best—the New England Patriots and the New York Jets.
I expect to see that more consistently in 2011.
As for Hillis, an injury has slowed him thus far, but I don't think a minor ailment is going to stop this freight train from punishing opposing defenses once again this season. Hillis has the unique ability to decide whether to plow right through you, jump over you or just run right past you.
In short, he is a nearly unstoppable force. His only fault last season was fumbles, however, as he matures as a runner, I have a feeling that the turnovers will disappear.
One last thing about the Browns offense: Keep an eye on wide receiver Greg Little. Out of the University of North Carolina, Little is a Terrell Owens clone who was undervalued going into the draft because of a suspension that wiped out his entire 2010 season. The kid can flat out play, and he is the type of big target, big play guy that the Browns have been missing since Kellen Winslow and Braylon "no hands" Edwards left town.
On defense, it is all about the defensive line.
Anchored by the two monsters in the middle, Ahtya Rubin and first-round pick Phil Taylor, this defensive front has a chance to be special in 2011. With those two clogging the running lanes and taking on double-teams, pass-rushing specialist Jabaal Sheard should have a terrific rookie season on the outside. At 6'2", 255 pounds, Sheard is just about the same size as Indianapolis Colts great, Dwight Freeney. The Browns are hoping he can bring that same speed off the edge.
The secondary is another strong area for this defense. Cornerback Joe Haden and underrated strong safety T.J. Ward are among the game's budding stars.
Both rookies last season, Haden picked off six passes and defended 18 more, while Ward quietly totaled 123 tackles. Neither showed any signs of wear as the season went on, and I expect them each to be even better in 2011.
Now comes the final piece to the puzzle: the schedule.
Somehow, some way, the Browns play only one team in the first 12 weeks of the season who had a winning record in 2010 (the Colts).
With that being said, is it unrealistic to imagine the Browns winning eight of those first 12 games?
I think not.
Although the season ends off with a brutal stretch of games—Baltimore Ravens twice, Pittsburgh Steelers twice, and the Arizona Cardinals once— if the Browns can squeak out just one of those, they will be at that magical number nine.
So while I think it would be a stretch to envision the Browns marching into the playoffs this year, there is no reason to think they can't win nine games and take a huge step in their journey back to NFL respectability.