Ideally, the Browns would come off their Week Eight bye to face a less-imposing team than 5-1 New England on Nov. 7. And if they weren't going to catch a break there, perhaps they could have drawn a club easier than the Jets, winners of five straight, on Nov. 14. At present, there are seven teams tied for a league-high five wins — and Cleveland will have played five of them by the time Week 10 wraps up.
Beyond those games, the Browns play four of five away from home starting with a tilt at Jacksonville in Week 11. They hit the road three times in a row in December, traveling to Miami, Buffalo and Cincinnati in Weeks 13 through 15. They finish with home games vs. Baltimore and Pittsburgh, to whom they have already lost. The only game left in which they figured to be favored to win is their Week 12 home game vs. Carolina.
The good news: the Browns are better-equipped to handle such an imposing schedule than they were a season ago. The bad news: they have lost five of seven games already, and with two more losses or so, their playoff hopes, already dim, will be close to extinguished.
So how can the Browns build off their Week Seven win at New Orleans? Following the blueprint used Sunday — physical, conservative offense; swarming, confusing defense; sound, creative special teams — is the way to go. Give the Browns credit: they know their strengths, and they play to them. Their ruggedness on offense is their calling card. Their aggressiveness on defense can leave them vulnerable but can also pay dividends. And in the kicking game? They are very good, a nice edge for a team that needs all the advantages it can take.
The Browns upset the Saints, and they scared the Ravens and Falcons something fierce. They played Pittsburgh close for more than a half, too. The postseason is a long shot for Cleveland, given the schedule and the five losses already piled high. But continued improvement should be an expectation, and regresssion should be considered a disappointment. Let's see if the flashes of promise the Browns have showed early become something brighter or cease. That's why these next nine games are so important.