The Browns hope and believe the worst of their 2008 season is behind them. They play in a division intent on beating each other up. The Steelers lead the AFC North at 3-1. The Ravens are next at 2-1 followed by the 1-3 Browns and 0-4 Bengals.
The Browns get back into action Oct. 13 against the Giants after using the bye to recuperate and get back to fundamental football.
A preseason game against the Giants Aug. 18 in the Meadowlands is where things started going downhill. Quarterback Derek Anderson suffered a concussion, safety Brodney Pool suffered a concussion, kick returner Josh Cribbs sprained an ankle, running back Jamal Lewis pulled a hamstring and linebacker Willie McGinest pulled a groin muscle. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards was already out with a lacerated heel.
The injuries presented a challenge, but the Browns are convinced the worst is behind.
"Our division has a very tough schedule, all of us do," general manager Phil Savage said. "I don't think there's a team in our division that is just going to run away with it. Neither is there going to be a team that will be totally out of it because the schedule is so difficult for everybody.
"There's a lot of football left and fortunately for us there are a lot of teams ahead of us right now that we have an opportunity to play. Those are all things that we can build on going forward."
The task will be difficult. Six of the Browns' 12 remaining opponents rank in the top seven defensively, based on yards allowed. The Browns rank dead last offensively, averaging 211 yards a game.
Anderson ranks 32nd among quarterbacks with a 49.9 rating. Only Tyler Thigpen in Kansas City ranks lower, and he was banished to the bench after one start.
Romeo Crennel said the concussion suffered against the Giants and subsequent time missed is a reason Anderson isn't playing as well as he did last year. Savage said Anderson is throwing "to a smaller strike zone" because he is passing to 5-9 Syndric Steptoe instead of injured 6-5 Joe Jurevicius.
Anderson wants to cut down on the 19 interceptions he threw last year, but he has already thrown six. Some aren't his fault. On some, the receiver did not run a crisp route. Against the Ravens, for example, Anderson threw the ball before Steptoe made his break, as is supposed to happen. But Steptoe was not precise on his route, making it easier for Ed Reed to intercept the pass.
"The whole thing is timing and getting reps together," Anderson said. "A lot of times you let the ball go and (the receiver) better find a way to get out there or it's going to hit the other guy in the chest.
"That's the biggest thing about not having (regular) guys out there. Regardless if it's somebody else's fault, it came out of my hands."
Anderson threw 24 passes against the Bengals. The Browns ran 40 times. Anderson said he would happily hand off more than throw if it means winning the game.
As disappointing as the first quarter of the schedule was, there is ample reason to believe the Browns can rebound to make a run at a playoff spot.
With Pittsburgh plagued by injuries and Baltimore starting a rookie quarterback, there doesn't appear to be a runaway favorite in the AFC North. The bye week also came at a good time for the Browns, who were beat up at key positions.
With a week to rest, wide receiver Donte' Stallworth should be closer to full health to provide a complementary threat to Braylon Edwards, whose play can only improve. And the Browns could begin to see better field position with return specialist Joshua Cribbs getting closer to full healthy following a nagging ankle sprain.
Tight end Kellen Winslow remains one of the league's most dynamic threats at his position. If Stallworth can be a factor and Joe Jurevicius can return midseason, defenses won't be able to focus so much attention on Winslow.
Any hope the Browns have on making noise down the stretch depends on a brutal six-week stretch immediately following the bye: home against the Giants, road trips to Washington and Jacksonville, back home against Baltimore and Denver and then off to Buffalo.
All six teams are strong playoff contenders, and even a 3-3 record would leave the Browns 4-6 heading into the stretch run.
That's a daunting proposition with quarterback Derek Anderson failing to recapture his 2007 form and injuries robbing the defense of starters on the line and in the secondary.
The early-season struggles have created signs of frustration, from Anderson and Edwards exchanging words on the sideline in Cincinnati to Winslow complaining about a lack of balls coming his way. A loss to the Giants appears likely, and one or two more following that could lead to a problem with team chemistry and morale.