Browns Schedule: The Road Ahead
By Joe Zevchek
How does the saying go?
Something about not asking how the sausage is made?
I honestly can’t remember but It seems that it would be a good parallel to the Cleveland Browns’ win over Oakland on Sunday. It wasn’t exactly pretty but we can all savor the results as well as look forward to the Browns schedule coming up.
Disclaimer: I missed most of the game and heard half of the 3rd quarter on the radio, and got home in time to see most of the 4th, right after the Andrew Hawkins touchdown catch. Regardless, here’s a few thoughts as it relates to what I said the Browns needed to do to win:
– Brian Hoyer didn’t exactly put on a game for the ages, but, as Jared wrote, he did play better and made the plays he needed. He still needs to continue to improve but a win is what matters most, and in the end he helped make it happen.
Oct 26, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer (6) throws a pass during the first quarter against the Oakland Raiders at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
– The running game continues to struggle. This is certainly discouraging but we’d probably be better off holding back any judgment until the offensive line settles in. I imagine we see Nick McDonald at center again this weekend against Tampa Bay. Isaiah Crowell getting only 1 touch seemed baffling, but Mike Pettine’s explanation for it being over concerns of ball security in a close game is fair. I’d expect to see more of him this week, though.
– Huge credit to the defense in this game. They certainly had moments of trepidation in allowing the Raiders to march down the field, but nice plays by Paul Kruger, Donte Whitner, and Joe Haden, among others, held them in check. While Oakland is far from an offensive juggernaut, a game like this hopefully helped boost the defensive unit’s confidence for tougher games down the road. Tashaun Gibson should be a shoe-in for the Pro Bowl, Kruger looks to be the player who we hoped he was when he was signed last year, and even rookie Justin Gilbert seems to be turning the corner.
– Travis Benjamin had yet another fumble on a punt return. This is getting just plain exasperating and needs to be fixed. I’d love to see him get back to his 2013 form, but he’s simply a liability right now.
In the end, though, this win is still huge. The Browns dug deep and found a way to win despite some early adversity. Of equal importance, for the first time this year they took the lead to start the game and never gave it up. This is exactly the kind of toughness and perseverance that’s important for them to play with.
So, 4-3 through 7 games. Still in the thick of the hunt. Browns fans haven’t had a reason to be this excited in the middle of a season in 7 years. The AFC North is the only division in the league with all teams being above .500, which should make the next couple of weeks very interesting and exciting. Currently, the standings look like this:
Cincinnati: 4-2-1 (.643)
Baltimore: 5-3 (.625)
Pittsburgh: 5-3 (.625)
Cleveland: 4-3 (.571)
It may seem like it’s said every week, but the next couple of games are direly important. Wins and losses by any team in the AFC North could reshape the division in the blink of an eye. Let’s take a look and discuss some possible scenarios.
Next week, the Browns face the 1-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa Bay has certainly not lived up to expectations so far, but considering the way the Browns have played the past couple of weeks, they should prove to be a handful for the Browns. If the Browns can keep up the big-play ability that they’ve shown throughout the year so far, they should be able to win this game.
Meanwhile, the Bengals play at home against the Jaguars. No deep analysis needed here, and it’s likely safe to project a Cincinnati win.
The big game, however, is Baltimore at Pittsburgh. The Steelers are a tough team to read this year- after losing to the previously winless Buccaneers and getting gashed by the Browns, they had a big comeback win over Houston and then demolished Indianapolis this past week. The Ravens, meanwhile, are coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Bengals. Season sweeps are rare in this series and the Steelers are riding the momentum, so I’ll take Pittsburgh here. This would make the standings after week 9 look like this:
Cincinnati: 5-2-1 (.686)
Cleveland: 5-3 (.625)
Baltimore: 5-4 (.555)
Now this is interesting. In week 10, The Steelers play the Jets, and the Ravens take on the Titans. While anything can happen, let’s assume they each notch a win, placing them at 7-3 and 6-4, respectively.
This would set the stage for the Browns to take a solid 2nd place in the division if they can dispatch the Bengals on Thursday night. Of course, we won’t know how this all shakes out until nearly 72 hours after the Browns-Bengals game, but if the Steelers and Ravens both win, and the Browns can beat the Bengals, the division will have nearly turned upside down in a matter of 2 weeks, with Pittsburgh leading the pack at 7-3, the Browns coming in 2nd at 6-3, the Bengals in 3rd at 5-3-1, and the Ravens looking up at everyone with a record of 6-4. Everyone would still be in play for the division title and/or a playoff spot.
Conversely, a Browns loss certainly wouldn’t put them out of it, but it’s literally the difference between being in 2nd or 4th place, as the Ravens would be ahead in the standings by virtue of their week 3 win in Cleveland.
But what does this all mean? The bottom line is that the Browns cannot, under any circumstances, let their foot off the gas. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are each playing very winnable games the same week the Browns will face the current division leader in Cincinnati. Hoping for, let alone counting on, one of them to drop their games if the Browns lose is like betting on the lottery.
I don’t particularly like playing “the schedule game,” and this season has certainly shown us that there are no safe bets in the NFL. But in this instance, it’s interesting to see how each game is so important in the AFC North.
Buckle in, Browns fans. This is going to be quite a ride. Let’s just hope it doesn’t break down at the bottom of a hill.