The 2011 season will mark the Cleveland Browns' thirteenth season since their return to the NFL in 1999. The team has won only one season-opening game since its return, a 20-3 victory against the Baltimore Ravens in 2004.
A victory in Week 1 can be instrumental in setting the tone for the season. The Browns have been continuously plagued by poor starts season after season, with each sluggish start usually beginning with a loss in Week 1.
The 2011 opener carries much significance. It will be the regular season debut of newly hired head coach Pat Shurmur. Team president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert hired Shurmur to replace previous coach Eric Mangini, whose philosophy contrasted that of Holmgren and Heckert. No previous head coach for the Browns has won in their debut since the team returned in 1999. Shurmur hopes to break that trend this coming Sunday.
With the Cincinnati Bengals visiting Cleveland to open the season, the Browns receive a critical divisional test immediately. The team has played poorly in divisional games in the past, and a win against Cincinnati could provide the momentum the team will need if they are to exceed expectations this season.
With the retirement of quarterback Carson Palmer and the departure of receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, not to mention possibly the team's most significant loss, cornerback Johnathan Joseph, the Bengals have taken a step back. This was a playoff team as recently as 2009, when they won the AFC North, but those days appear over as the team begins a youth movement.
If Cincinnati is truly down this year, the Browns must capitalize with a win on Sunday. Beating the Bengals is also crucial considering that the other two teams in the AFC North, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, are considered by many to be serious Super Bowl contenders this year.
The game is important from a player standpoint as well. For quarterback Colt McCoy, a solid performance against the Bengals can help him establish confidence going forward. Although the loss of Joseph hurts, Cincinnati still has a talented defense led by cornerback Leon Hall and linebacker Rey Maualuga. McCoy will certainly be challenged.
The Browns are not a trendy pick to be a playoff team this season. A fast start is essential if this team expects to contend for a playoff spot. Their season opening game against the Bengals offers a great opportunity for the team to start the season with a divisional win against their in-state rivals.