Friday, September 8, 2017

How the 2017 season will unfold

Predicting the outcome of a football season on a game-by-game basis is always a fun project when it comes to the Browns because it engenders a variety of responses from the franchise’s rabid fan base.

Suffice it to say such a venture is done on a strictly subjective plane. That is a given in the precarious world of sports prognostication.

Objectivity be damned, here is how the Browns will finish this season, game-by- game, drip-by-drip, loss-by-loss as the 2017 edition meanders though the season. They play only seven games in Cleveland this season. The eighth “home game” will be in London against the Minnesota Vikings in week eight.

It all starts Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Cleveland in the facility that used to be called Cleveland Browns Stadium and concludes New Years’ Eve afternoon in, you guessed it, Pittsburgh. Many rough roads lie in between. A caveat: These are merely guesses and are presented strictly for entertainment purposes.

Sunday Sept. 10 vs. Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. – The National Football League schedule makers must be masochists. Scheduling the Pittsburgh Steelers again for the season opener is downright mean. Let’s be honest. The Steelers have owned the Browns since the resurrection in 1999, whether it’s at home or on the road. The Browns have won only six of the 37 meetings since that year. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 21-2 against them. The Steelers will make sure DeShone Kizer’s professional football debut will be one he will never forget and not in a good way. Why? Because it won’t be pretty and will clearly set the tone for the rest of the season. The much better team romps. Record: 0-1

Sunday Sept. 17 at Baltimore, 1 p.m. – Playing game No. 2 against another division rival doesn’t help matters, especially since it’s on the road. The Ravens are 27-9 against the Browns since 1999. That includes a 16-2 mark since 2008. Joe Flacco returns to quarterback the Ravens after spending the entire exhibition season rehabbing a back problem. He’s another quarterback who loves facing the Browns, winning 15 of his 17 starts against them. Kizer again discovers in more ways that this isn’t Notre Dame anymore as his NFL education speeds up. It won’t be another romp because the Cleveland defense challenges, but the first victory is still a dream. Record: 0-2

Sunday Sept. 24 at Indianapolis, 1 p.m. – The big question in this one is whether Andrew Luck, slowly recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, will be under center after missing at least the season opener. If not, the Browns have a chance because of the defense, which develops some consistency since the Steelers debacle in the opener. If Luck plays, all bets are off because his quick release negates the Browns’ pass rush and he will play pitch and catch with wide receiver T. Y, Hilton most of the afternoon. Kizer, meanwhile, is still standing after taking beatings in the first two games and keeps the game close. Not lose enough, though. The Colts, 7-1 against the Browns since 1999, improve to 8-1. Record:  0-3

Sunday Oct. 1 vs. Cincinnati, 1 p.m. – Finally a game the Browns have a chance to win. They are 12-24 against the Bengals since 1999, winning seven of those games at home. That is, indeed, a rare advantage for the Browns. And it will play out that way for the most part with the Cleveland defense stopping rookie running back Joe Mixon, forcing quarterback Andy Dalton to throw more than he wants. That also means a big afternoon for Bengals wide receiver A. J. Green, who longer has to face Joe Haden, at least not against Cleveland. When healthy, Haden handled Green more than Green handled him. The Browns have no one who can handle Green now. Big day for the big wideout. Record: 0-4

Sunday Oct. 8 vs. New York Jets, 1 p.m. – Label this one the race for the bottom of the NFL, or the race for the top pick in the next college football draft. The Jets have not been bashful in purging (trashing?) a decent roster in order to be so bad, no team can possibly be worse. The Browns are not trying to be that awful, but losing their first four games isn’t helping.  These are arguably the two worst teams in the NFL playing the kind of game that might embarrass football purists. Any team (the Jets) with Josh McCown as its starting quarterback is a team spiraling rapidly out of control. The Browns can attest to that. Kizer finally put together a strong game against a terrible New York defense as the Jets cruise toward that top pick. Record: 1-4

Sunday Oct. 15 at Houston, 1 p.m. – A couple of stats to ponder for this game: The Texans were 7-1 at home last season and made the playoffs with an offense that scored only 15 more points than the 1-15 Browns. That’s because it had one of the AFC’s best defenses despite losing perennial All-Pro end J. J. Watt after three games to a series of back surgeries. Well, Watt is back and healthy, which is bad news for the Browns. The Texans’ offense is still a shade better than ordinary, though, which gives the Browns a chance. But Kizer learns another valuable lesson as Watt & Co. abuse the Browns’ offensive line and drop the rookie quarterback a half dozen times. Record: 1-5

Sunday Oct. 22 vs. Tennessee, 1 p.m. – Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota has faced the Browns twice in his young NFL career and seemed to enjoy himself. He completed 38 of his 61 passes (62%) for 593 yards, five touchdowns and just one interception. A strong offensive line affords him the opportunity once again to strafe the young Cleveland secondary, which has had its problems this season. The Browns try and rattle Mariota with a variety if blitzes, but his ability to find tight end Delanie Walker time and again neutralizes that strategy. Kizer, getting better support this week from his line, manages a couple of touchdown passes, but they are not nearly enough as the record tumbles. Record: 1-6

Sunday Oct. 29 vs. Minnesota in London, 9:30 a.m. – The last time these teams met four years ago, Rob Chudzinski was the Cleveland coach and the Browns recorded one of their four victories that season with tight end Jordan Cameron catching three touchdown passes, one on a fake field goal. The Vikings do not overwhelm you with their personnel. On offense, top draft pick Dalvin Cook shoulders a majority of the run game, while Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph are reliable targets for quarterback Sam Bradford, who riddles the Cleveland secondary And coach Mike Zimmer’s strong defense keeps Kizer & Co. in check. It will be a long flight home from England. Record: 1-7

Sunday Nov. 5 – Bye. Thank goodness.

Sunday Nov. 12 at Detroit, 1 p.m. – These two teams have met only 23 times since 1952, just four times since 1999, and the Browns have won just five of those games, four at home. In other words, playing the Lions in Detroit is hazardous to the health of the Browns. Based solely on history and the fact the Lions made the playoffs last season, the Browns’ chance of stopping their three-game losing streak are slim at best. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford loves, loves, loves playing against the Browns. In two games, he has thrown for 670 yards, nine touchdowns and only three picks. In the 2013 victory, tight end Joseph Fauria caught three passes for 34 yards and three touchdowns. Stafford now has standout receivers in wideout Golden Tate and tight end Eric Ebron. It’s going to be a long day for the Cleveland defense, which welcomes back top draft pick Myles Garrett after mending the high ankle sprain he suffered preparing for the season opener. Record: 1-8

Sunday Nov. 19 vs. Jacksonville, 1 p.m. – Normally, this would be an easy pick. There is no way the Browns lose to the Jaguars, especially at home. Until you look at the history of this rivalry. The Jags, who knocked off the Browns in their inaugural season in 1995, hold an 11-5 series lead, but the teams have split the last six games, two of the Browns’ three victories coming at home. So maybe there is hope. A quick look at the records of the teams the last five years shows the Browns with a 20-60 record and the Jaguars at 17-63. And then you notice hotshot rookie Leonard Fournette is their running back. That won’t make a difference, however. The Browns find a way to shatter their four-game losing streak. Record: 2-8

Sunday Nov. 26 at Cincinnati, 1 p.m. – Once again, Andy Dalton and A. J. Green have fun in a post-Thanksgiving feast at the expense of the Cleveland secondary. Joe Mixon, who was stopped cold in the first meeting, makes up for it with his best game of the season against a Browns defense that is weary from being on the field so long this season. Kizer is still vertical to the surprise of more than a few, but the Bengals swipe three of his passes, sack him numerous times and shut down the running game en route to their easiest victory of the season. Record: 2-9

Sunday Dec. 3 at Los Angeles Chargers, 4:05 p.m. – Traveling to the west coast and Denver has not been kind at all to the Browns. Since 1999, they have journeyed that long distance from home on 20 occasions and returned a winner only four times. That includes three non-productive trips to San Diego to play the Chargers, now relocated in Los Angeles. Traveling long distances seems to adversely affect the Browns. This trip will be no different even though the Chargers will play their home games for the next two seasons in the 30,000-seat StubHub Center while their new stadium is being built. Philip Rivers is merely the next quarterback to torment the Cleveland secondary. Joey Bosa will lead the sack parade against Kizer, who will be benched in favor of Kevin Hogan. Record: 2-10

Sunday Dec. 10 vs. Green Bay, 1 p.m. – The Cleveland defense greets another quarterback who loves to throw passes against them. Aaron Rodgers has played the Browns only twice and has enjoyed extreme success. He is 40-of-56 (71.4%) for 506 yards, six touchdowns, zero interceptions and one sack. He has the luxury of throwing this season to the likes of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Martellus Bennett. If the Browns have trouble against quarterbacks far inferior to Rodgers, how can anyone expect them to keep up with the man in Green Bay who got his chance after patiently sitting for three seasons behind Hall of Famer Brett Favre, whom he will join five years after he retires. This one won’t be close. Record: 2-11

Sunday Dec. 17 vs. Baltimore, 1 p.m. – The Browns last season were winless against the AFC North or the first time in five seasons. They enter this game winless after four division games with the Steelers looming in two weeks – in Pittsburgh. Since returning in 1999, they have never put winless seasons back-to-back in division play. The Browns haven’t defeated the Ravens at home in four years. That is about to change. Jackson decides to give Kizer a mental day off from rugged NFL warfare. Hogan steps in, throws a pair of scoring passes and the defense shuts down Joe Flacco & Co. for the club’s first AFC North victory since edging the Ravens in overtime in October 2015. That was 15 straight losses ago. It’s also Hogan’s first victory as a pro. Record: 3-11

Sunday Dec. 24 at Chicago, 1 p.m. – Hogan’s reward is a second straight start as he squares off against Cleveland-area native Mitch (Mitchell) Trubisky, who has experienced an up-and-down season since replacing Mike Glennon four games into the season. Game in Chicago: Advantage Trubisky. The kid from Mentor has an up day, throwing a pair of scoring passes on a cold Christmas Eve day.  His defense helps mightily with four sacks of Hogan and a pair of picks. Kizer returns, but does not fare any better. Close for only a quarter as the season winds mercifully down. Record: 3-12

Sunday Dec. 31 at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. – It was exactly 366 days ago today that the Steelers closed out the 2016 season at home against the Browns. The Steelers had clinched the division championship and could gain no more home-field advantage in the playoffs by winning. So Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin wisely held out several of his star players on both sides of the ball in order to avoid possible injury. That included his prize trio on offense of Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. The Browns were coming off their first victory of the season over San Diego. A situation ripe for an upset? Uh, no. The Steelers spotted the Browns a 14-0 lead in the first 29½ minutes, then roared back behind backup quarterback Landry Jones and running back DeAngelo Williams to outscore the Browns, 27-10, in the next 30½ minutes to win. Will lightning strike again this season? Yes. Record: 3-13

That’s the bad news. The good news? Hue Jackson returns for a third season, which will be the season the Browns finally turn a corner and become more than just competitive, signaling a revival in Browns Nation.

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