Rich's Rant Special: Feel the Love

All of a sudden, the camera seems to love the Cleveland Browns. How will it impact their season? Rich Passan takes a look at the Browns sudden popularity and offers his prediction of how the Browns will fare in 2008. Hang on...

It's amazing what one terrific season can do for a professional football team.

Take the Browns, for example.

When the National Football League announced its schedule Tuesday, the Browns were clearly on the minds of those who put the grid together.

It was decidedly a case of famine to feast, basement to penthouse, dregs to darlings as the league cast a huge spotlight on one of its bottom feeders until this past season.

All it took was one season of fun football and the NFL was more than ready to showcase what it considered one of its most entertaining teams. Who'd have thought a year ago that team would be the Browns.

Sure, they didn't make the playoffs. But it has become quite obvious the manner in which they played offense caught the attention of those who matter in NFL headquarters, those who love to showcase fun teams. And whether you like it or not, the Browns were a fun team last season.

The NFL couldn't wait to show off Derek Anderson and his merry band of point makers to the entire nation. How else can one explain five primetime appearances (three at home) and a sixth, the opening game at Cleveland Browns Stadium against Dallas, most likely beamed into a majority of homes across the country?

It's been nearly five years since the Browns appeared on Monday Night Football. Back then, it was a lone appearance in early December and they lost to the St. Louis Rams on ABC with Al Michaels and John Madden.

Now, it's three appearances on Monday night this season on ESPN with Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Tony Kornheiser. Even NBC (with Michaels and Madden) gets a Sunday night crack at the Browns in week two against the Pittsburgh Steelers. And the NFL Network grabs a slice of the Browns pie with a Thursday night affair against Denver in early November.

When will all the love stop?

And the home fans finally have a very attractive schedule to look forward to with the likes of the Cowboys, Denver, Indianapolis and the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants coming to town. Maybe the Manning brothers will exchange notes on how difficult it is to play at CBS, where the Browns were 7-1 last season.

A quick perusal of what appears to be a tough schedule reveals some interesting facts. The Browns:

* Play only one game out of the Eastern Time Zone. That's against the Tennessee Titans in early December. Their longest trip is to Jacksonville on Oct. 26.

* Play four home games in a five-game stretch in November. The only roadie is at Buffalo on a Monday night following their Thursday night game against Denver. That's 11 days between games.

* Play the Thursday night game at home, forcing the Broncos to travel to a game for which the teams have just three days to prepare.

* Wind up the season playing three of the last four games on the road, the last two of which are against AFC North opponents Cincinnati (at home)  and Pittsburgh.

The Browns are paying a steep price for finishing 10-6 last season. They play the seventh-toughest schedule in the NFL. That's the bad news.

The good news is the Steelers own the toughest schedule in the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens have the fourth-toughest schedule. Which means that an 8-8 record, theoretically speaking, might be good enough to win the AFC North this season.

So you can pore over the schedule and have fun figuring out how the Browns are going to fare against all the teams even before they throw a football. But take time out and do the same with the other three division teams and see how it comes out.

You might then not be surprised to find out why the Browns voted against the league's reseeding proposal that would have rewarded teams with a better record than division winners in the playoffs.

For what it's worth in the early going, I have the Browns coming in at 9-7 (3-3 in the division); the Steelers at 8-8 (5-1); the Ravens at 6-10 (2-4); and the Bengals at 6-10 (2-4).

Cleveland will win six of seven games, losing only in Jacksonville, after splitting its first four of the season, then lose four of its last five, winning only in Philadelphia.

But all that is subject to change based on what is observed at training camp and in exhibition games. For the time being, have fun guessing.

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