Brownie Nation: Is Cleveland For Real?

There's "much maligned," and then there's the Cleveland Browns. Originally one of the NFL's most storied franchises, it's largely been a disaster for the Dawg Pound since the team was reincarnated in 1999. They've had a notoriously lengthy list of starting quarterbacks, with current starter Baker Mayfield representing the 15th different primary QB the team has employed in 21 seasons. They've made the playoffs just once in the past 20 years, and are currently riding a 17-year postseason drought.

From 2011-2017, the Browns finished last in the AFC North every season, culminating with a 1-31 record in the 2016-2017 seasons. Did I mention "much maligned?"

However, years of dire futility appeared to be shifting for Cleveland prior to last season. Following two decades littered with first-round busts, excitement was high around a core of top draft picks in No. 1 overall selections Mayfield and Myles Garrett, along with early second-rounder Nick Chubb.

The free agent signing of Kareem Hunt, along with trades for wide receiver weapons Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry, combined with the touted draft picks made Cleveland an underdog darling heading into the 2019 season. Unfortunately for the Brownie faithful, the team underachieved to the tune of a 6-10 record and a third place finish in the division. First-year head coach Freddie Kitchens was under fire throughout the year for questionable coaching decisions, along with a cantankerous relationship with franchise QB Mayfield.

Kitchens was ousted in the offseason, replaced by long-time Vikings assistant Kevin Stefanski, also getting his first shot as a head coach. Fortunes have been far greater for Stefanski in 2020, with Sunday's win over Tennessee putting the Browns at 9-3, the third seed in the AFC if the season ended today. They sit just one win away from their first double-digit win season since 2007, their only 10-win season since 1999. The remaining four games of their schedule are split between contests with the two New York franchises, sporting a combined record of 5-19 (with every win coming from the Giants) and top division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore, who are currently 17-5 combined.

While their record looks impressive, the primary dig on Cleveland this season has been a soft schedule, with less than impressive wins against bottom-feeders coupled with lopsided losses to contenders. The Browns squeaked out two wins against a last-place Bengals team by a combined 8 points. They only managed 16 points while splitting contests with Houston and Las Vegas.

They narrowly escaped with victories against bottom-feeding Philadelphia and Jacksonville squads, who lead the league in syllables, but have combined for four wins in 24 games. In their two games with Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the Browns were boat-raced to the tune of 76-13 deficit. This Sunday, however, they appeared to be ready to make a statement victory against the top AFC-contending Titans.

Cleveland stormed out to a 38-7 lead in the first half, absolutely dominating the home squad Titans, who boasted a semblance of an actual home crowd in Nashville. What was looking like a laugher for the Browns got far closer in the second half however, as the Titans outscored Cleveland, 28-3, while falling just shy of an epic comeback and embarrassing collapse by the visitors.

So am I sold on the Browns as legitimate contenders in the AFC playoffs? If I were a betting man, I'd be hesitant to lay any money on Cleveland against the Chiefs or Steelers of the world, even Buffalo for that matter. That said, it's always nice to see a long suffering fanbase enjoy a bit of success. In classic Cleveland fashion, though, most of the loyal Dawg Pound won't get to see it in person this season.

You know what they say. The Browns be brownin'.

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