The NFL released the 2016 schedules for all 32 teams on Thursday night. Though we’ve known for months who each team is set to face during the upcoming season, the order in which those games would be played were kept a tightly-hidden secret until this week. Like every team, the Cleveland Browns have stretches of the season that are more difficult than others. Unfortunately for the Browns, though, is that their toughest two stretches merge into one, and span the first 11 games of the season.
The problems begin right away. Five of the Browns’ first seven games are on the road, including the season-opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. They also travel to Miami to face the Dolphins in Week 3, to Washington the week after that and are at the Tennessee Titans and the Cincinnati Bengals in Weeks 6 and 7. Not all of these are daunting opponents—it’s hard to tell exactly what the 2016 iteration of the Dolphins will be capable of achieving and though the Titans got a haul of draft picks from the Los Angeles Rams for their No. 1 spot in the upcoming draft, who knows if those picks will be used well enough to make this team appreciably better this season.
But it’s not the quality of the opponents that makes these first seven games so daunting, but the incredible amount of road games the Browns have to play. This is a team that will have made many significant offseason changes, from coaching staff to offensive line, from quarterback to the starting safety tandem; now, they are essentially being fed to the wolves in an accelerated manner with the league forcing the Browns on the road so often to open the year. For a team that went 1-7 on the road last year, this doesn’t feel good. Even the (on-paper, theoretical) improvements in the Browns’ strength of schedule compared to 2015 doesn’t make things seem that much better.
The two home games the Browns play in those first seven contests aren’t cakewalks either; in fact, they are far from it. First comes the Baltimore Ravens in Week 2. Now, the Ravens were a 5-11 team in 2015, one riddled by injuries and an undermanned receiving corps, as well as the torn ACL and MCL suffered by quarterback Joe Flacco in November that ended his season. Flacco plans to be back in time for Week 1, but with injuries of that nature and extent, the real timetable is still TBD. A Flacco-less Ravens team would be a far easier hurdle for the Browns to jump than if he is under center. But if Flacco is healthy, and the Ravens can rebuild their other injured players and perform well in the draft, their poor showing in 2015 could prove more fluke than start of a trend. And at the very least, the rivalry factor in this game adds pressure to the Browns in their home opener.
Cleveland’s next home game is against the New England Patriots in Week 5, which means either a well-tuned Tom Brady-Bill Belichick led machine or the potential of Brady coming off of a four-week suspension depending on the outcome of the—yes, still pending—situation related to the football-deflation “scandal.” Either way, the Browns must find a way to not play checkers when the Patriots are playing chess in order to keep this game competitive. It’s not all about Brady’s arm these days, as New England’s run game can plow over lesser defenses. If Cleveland’s longstanding struggles stopping the run continue into the 2016 season, there’s no doubt the Patriots will exploit them.
Once the Browns make it through the road-heavy gauntlet of their first seven games, they have four of their next five on the road. Unfortunately, this next group of games before the Week 13 bye week—or more accurately, the first four games of these next five—represent the second daunting stretch for the Browns this season, effectively extending their trail of troublesome opponents to 11 straight weeks. In Week 8, they host the New York Jets, who finished 10-6 last season and were just one win away from a playoff berth. Assuming the Jets don’t take steps backwards this year, then they will not be an easy opponent to take on even with the Browns having home-field advantage. The same can be said for the following week, when the Dallas Cowboys come to town. Lingering injury concerns about Dallas quarterback Tony Romo make guessing the Cowboys’ effectiveness as a team this year hazy this far out from the Week 9 game, and one never quite knows what to expect from their defense. But there remains a palpable degree of difficulty to hosting the Cowboys, especially in the context of Cleveland’s schedule and so many early weeks pent on the road.
Week 10 presents another road game, and the Browns’ sole, nationally-televised prime time game of the season, when they travel to Baltimore to face the Ravens. The Browns do have a road win in Baltimore of recent provenance, beating them 33-30 in October of last year. But that also marked the first time since 2007 that the Browns have won in Baltimore and the franchise has nine wins to 25 losses to the Ravens dating back to 1999. Cleveland has faired alright recently in prime time games, winning both of the two they played in 2014. The Browns also have a combined 6-15 record in prime time since 1999. It’s quite possible that the Browns can shine on the national stage this year, but there is also no denying that going to Baltimore on a Thursday night will still pose challenges.
This second difficult stretch choses in Week 11 in Cleveland, when the Browns host the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers’ offense does not look like it will slow down much this year even with the year-long suspension of receiver Martavis Bryant. Meanwhile, look for the defense to continue to improve as it did in 2015, especially in respect to the pass-rush. This will put a lot of pressure on whoever the Browns decide is their starting quarterback and what seems poised to be, in one way or another, a new-look offensive line. The relative oasis of the following week’s clash with the New York Giants preceding the bye week will be a welcome respite. The only problem is, given the five-of-seven road games to open plus the four, mostly home-based contests that follow, are (as of now, on paper) a brutal slate to face. If the Browns only win two games in their first seven, they are 2-5 with nearly half the season behind them. This isn’t to say the Browns cannot overachieve in the first year of their latest retooling nor that they cannot ultimately gel into a winning team thanks to such feet-to-fire scheduling. It is unfortunate, to say the least, that not only do the Browns have so many road games at the early part of their schedule but also once that comes to a close, the four games which follow (and the five heading into the bye) are no cake-walks, either.