I don't have to tell you the Browns have spent most of the past eight seasons languishing at the back of the field in the AFC North. And only the dreamers and the very, very optimistic give them any chance to win the division this season.
But you don't have to be an ardent Browns backer to believe Cleveland can be competitive early this season. Their schedule couldn't be much more favorable in the first three months. In their first 11 games, they play all of two — two! — playoff teams from a season ago. Their Week Two game at Indianapolis looks like their toughest test, but the Colts perhaps aren't quite as imposing as they were several years ago.
Four of the Browns' first six games are at home, and they are favored in all of them in lines set by Cantor Gaming, which, I can assure you, isn't installing Cleveland as favorites because their oddsmakers wear Browns Starter satin jackets to stay warm in their air-conditioned sportsbooks. No, the lines are measures of public perception, and Cantor believes the public will consider the Browns favorites in those four games.
In fact, on Cantor's line, the Browns are favored in their first six home games: vs. Cincinnati (Sept. 11), Miami (Sept. 25), Tennessee (Oct. 2), Seattle (Oct. 23), St. Louis (Nov. 13) and Jacksonville (Nov. 20).
Let's consider those opponents. The Bengals are likely to be starting rookie QB Andy Dalton, who would be making his regular-season debut vs. Cleveland. The Dolphins, Titans and Seahawks also could have QB instability, depending how the compressed free agency and trade market unfolds. The Rams are improving, but they aren't yet elite. The same could be said for Jacksonville.
The Browns' final five games are no picnic: two games each vs. Baltimore and Pittsburgh and a road trip to Arizona. The question is, can they be near the division lead when the real running begins in the AFC North? It's not unfathomable. It won't be easy, of course, and the Browns themselves are a work in progress.
But if the Browns are hopelessly out of it by the time December rolls around, it would signal some big problems in Cleveland. There have been tougher schedules, that's for sure.