2008 Schedule: A Spotlight and a Gauntlet

The Cleveland Browns will be severely tested starting in their first game against Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys. It gets little easier throughout the season, as the Browns aim for the playoffs against one the league's toughest schedules. Marty Gitlin takes a look at the games lying in the team's future....

The Browns figured that their breakthrough 2007 season would be reflected by a bit of recognition and notoriety in their 2008 schedule.

What they received extended beyond their wildest dreams.

The NFL rewarded the Browns for their 10-6 record and blossoming offense with five nationally televised games, including three at home.

The spotlight, however, also indicates brutal competition. The Browns play seven teams that qualified for the playoffs last season and nine games against opponents that placed among the Top 10 in the NFL defensively a year ago.

And if you think you can remain accustomed to setting aside Sundays at 1 p.m. to watch the Browns, think again. They play four Sunday late afternoon games in the first seven weeks along with two on Sunday night and three on Monday night.

The Browns jump right into the fire from the first kickoff. Here is an analysis of each game on their regular season schedule (opponents 2007 record in parenthesis):

Sunday, Sept. 7: Dallas Cowboys (13-3), 4:15 p.m. at Cleveland Browns Stadium (FOX) – The secondary and revamped defensive line will be severely tested by prolific quarterback Tony Romo and brash wide receiver Terrell Owens. The Cowboys averaged 27 points a game last season while the pass-rushing skills of DeMarcus Ware and Greg Ellis wreaked havoc on opposing offenses.

Sunday, Sept. 14: Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6), 8:15 p.m. at Cleveland Browns Stadium (NBC) – Some gaze into their crystal balls and declare the Browns AFC North favorites, but they must prove they can bump off their arch-nemesis first after nine consecutive defeats. The Steelers were again stagnant in the off-season, but the Browns have always struggled to contain quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Willie Parker, who gained 1,300 yards in 2007. And a defense that is perennially one of the stingiest in the NFL against the run would appear to be as unyielding as ever.

Sunday, Sept. 21: Baltimore Ravens (5-11), 4:15 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium (CBS) – Revenge will be on the minds of the Ravens after having been swept by the Browns in 2007 for the first time in five years. But do they boast a quarterback that can achieve their goals? And will former Heisman Trophy winner and Ohio State standout Troy Smith be that quarterback? Only time will tell, but the Ravens will certainly need to re-establish themselves as a defensive force to regain contender status.

Sunday, Sept. 28: Cincinnati Bengals (7-9), 1 p.m. at Paul Brown Stadium (CBS) – The Queen City soap opera has run for years now. And the plot thickened during the off-season when explosive wide receiver Chad Johnson demanded to be traded. If he sticks around, he will again team up with T.J. Houshmandzadeh to provide the Bengals with one of the premier tandems in the NFL. But then, Cincinnati has been saddled with one of the worst defenses in the league for several seasons. The Browns hope to avenge a Game 15 defeat to the Bengals in 2007 in which they lost control of their own destiny and ultimately knocked them out of the postseason.

Monday, Oct. 13: New York Giants (10-6), 8:30 p.m. at Cleveland Browns Stadium (ESPN) – The surprise Super Bowl champions will be playing with a bull's eye on their backs. Eli Manning began dressing in a phone booth once the playoffs began, transforming himself from a mistake-prone, average quarterback into a superman. But it was the sack-happy Giants defense, led by defensive end Osi Umenyiora, which keyed the stunning run to a title.

Sunday, Oct. 19: Washington Redskins (9-7), 4:15 p.m. at FedEx Field (CBS) – The Jekyll-Hyde Redskins collapsed in the second half of 2007 and the Browns, who could use a relative breather in this schedule, hope the guys from the nation's capital continue to regress. The Redskins yielded 25 points a game after midseason, but Clinton Portis remains among the consistent and effective running backs in football.

Sunday, Oct. 26: Jacksonville Jaguars (11-5), 4:05 p.m. at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium (CBS) – The Jaguars recently signed David Garrard to a long-term contract, displaying their confidence in the highly efficient quarterback. He doesn't throw often, but when he does, the ball either ends up on the ground or in the hands of a teammate. He completed 64 percent of his passes with a mere three interceptions a year ago. But it was running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew that sucked defenders into the box and allowed Garrard to find open receivers.

Sunday, Nov. 2: Baltimore Ravens (5-11), 1 p.m. at Cleveland Browns Stadium (CBS) – By this point in the season, we'll know which direction the up-and-down Ravens are heading. They generally finish under .500 or in the playoffs and, as usual, the strength of their defense will go a long way in determining their success or lack thereof. Baltimore registered 60 sacks in racking up 13 regular-season wins in 2006, then managed just 31 last season.

Thursday, Nov. 6: Denver Broncos (7-9), 8:15 p.m. at Cleveland Browns Stadium (NFL Network) – Few NFL teams have proven as consistently strong as Denver, which experienced its first losing season since 1999. Browns featured back Jamal Lewis must be licking his chops over the prospect of playing against a team that ranked 30th in the NFL last year against the run. But the team that has brought so much misery to Cleveland fans over the years has beaten the Browns in seven games meetings. The Browns should enter this one with tremendous motivation regardless of records.

Monday, Nov. 17: Buffalo Bills (7-9), 8:30 p.m. at Ralph Wilson Stadium (ESPN) – How will an 11-day layoff affect the Browns? That question will be answered in front of the usual sellout crowd in Buffalo and a national TV audience. The Bills played surprisingly well last season and even made a playoff push before falling in The Blizzard Bowl in Cleveland. This game will feature two of the premier special teams players in the NFL in the Browns' Joshua Cribbs and the Bills' Roscoe Parrish, who led the league in punt return average at 16.3 yards.

Sunday, Nov. 23: Houston Texans (8-8), 1 p.m. at Cleveland Browns Stadium (CBS) – It took Houston six years to reach .500 and average more than 20 points a game. Their success was greatly attributed to former first overall draft pick Mario Williams, who fulfilled his promise by registering 14 sacks in 2007. It remains to be seen if last year was an aberration for the Texans or the beginning of ascension as a legitimate playoff contender.

Sunday, Nov. 30: Indianapolis Colts (13-3), 1 p.m. at Cleveland Browns Stadium (CBS) – This might be a game that belongs on national TV, particularly for viewers who prefer shootouts, though Indianapolis has certainly overturned its reputation as a defensive pushover. A key match-up here is the Browns offense against an underrated Colts defense that surrendered an NFL-best 16.4 points a game last season. But then it's easy to be ignored when quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Joseph Addai and wide receiver Reggie Wayne are playing on the other side of the ball.

Sunday, Dec. 7: Tennessee Titans (10-6), 1 p.m. at LP Field (CBS) – Perhaps the Browns will remember which team beat them out for the final AFC playoff berth last year and use it as motivation. Much of the Titans' offensive hopes will be riding on the arm of Vince Young, who clearly regressed in 2007. The Titans do run the ball effectively and also feature Pro Bowl linemen Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch on a defense that ranked fifth overall in the NFL.

Monday, Dec. 15: Philadelphia Eagles (8-8), 8:45 p.m. at Lincoln Financial Field (ESPN) – There has been less controversy swirling around this team since Terrell Owens left, but also less winning. The team still boasts two talented skill position players in quarterback Donovan McNabb and versatile running back Brian Westbrook. They also landed what many believe to be the prize free agent of the off-season in Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel, who should bolster an already tough red zone defense.

Sunday, Dec. 21: Cincinnati Bengals (7-9), 1 p.m. at Cleveland Browns Stadium (CBS) – It's quite possible the Bengals will be playing the role of spoiler again by this point in the season. But if Chad Johnson indeed finds his way to greener pastures, will quarterback Carson Palmer have the weapons to overcome what has been a porous defense? That will likely remain the critical question for Cincinnati throughout the year.

Sunday, Dec. 28: Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6), 1 p.m. at Heinz Field (CBS) – What could be more dramatic than two bitter rivals clashing with playoff berths on the line in the regular-season finale? And what could be less dramatic than one or both teams resting their regulars in preparation for the playoffs? The Browns might require at least one win against the Steelers in 2008 to reach the postseason. One defeat of Pittsburgh in 2007 would have earned them a division title and forced the Steelers to watch the playoffs from their living rooms.

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