A Tougher Schedule For Browns Is Not Without Some Legitimate Perks

Kevin Stefanski's second journey as Browns coach includes some new challenges, but also some advantages over their division rivals. (Cleveland Browns)

Kevin Stefanski's second journey as Browns coach includes some new challenges, but also some advantages over their division rivals. (Cleveland Browns)

A tougher schedule for Browns is not without some legitimate perks

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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland.

NFL coaches like to break down their season into four equal quarters of four games to chart their teams’ progress. That becomes a problem under the NFL’s new 17-game format.

I don’t know whether Kevin Stefanski will break down his season 5-4-4-4 or 4-4-4-5, or something in between. Whatever he decides, Stefanski and the Browns are in for quite a different journey from what they encountered in 2020.

Stefanski acknowledged the return of packed crowds pose new challenges and benefits compared with the mostly-quiet stadiums of the 2020 season of the pandemic.

“This year, homefield advantage might be bigger than any year in recent memory with teams dealing with crowd noise week in and week out,” Stefanski said. “We're really excited to have nine home games in front of our fans in front of what I hoped is a packed building. I know what it sounded like with 12,000, so I can't wait to see what it's like with 67,895.”

Another big difference this year is a more difficult schedule overall.

AFC North teams face all teams in the AFC West and NFC North, as opposed to the weakling AFC South and NFC East divisions last year. As a result, AFC North teams inherited four of the nine-toughest schedules based on last season’s records. Pittsburgh owns the toughest schedule (.574 win percentage by opponents), Baltimore is second (.563), Cincinnati sixth (.529) and the Browns ninth (.518).

But the Browns received some favorable perks in their schedule, which give them certifiable advantages over Baltimore and Pittsburgh as they pursue their first AFC North title in their expansion era.

Game 1: at Kansas City, Sept. 12, Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS

Playing the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium is a difficult task no matter the date. Having the division playoff rematch right out of the gate has its rewards, even though the Chiefs are 7-1 in season openers under coach Andy Reid. First, it gives Stefanski and his staff four months to singularly prepare for the Chiefs. They should start immediately. Secondly, the new-look Browns defense will be a complete mystery to Reid with no game video to scout coordinator Joe Woods’ new looks involving up to nine new starters and four or five situation substitutes. Don’t expect Woods to show much in the three preseason games, either.

Game 2: home v. Houston, Sept. 19, Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS

Game 3: home v. Chicago, Sept. 26, Sunday, 1 p.m., FOX

A favorable opportunity to offset a possible Game 1 loss with two beatable opponents to kick off the home season. Tyrod Taylor and Andy Dalton or Justin Fields should not leave FirstEnergy Stadium a winner. Chicago’s defense is formidable, but still.

Game 4: at Minnesota, Oct. 3, Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS

Game 5: at L.A. Chargers, Oct. 10, Sunday, 4:05 p.m., CBS

Two road games in stadiums the Browns have never played -- U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, CA. Stefanski’s homecoming against the Vikings, the only NFL team for whom he worked before joining the Browns, is the obvious storyline for Game 4. The trip to SoFi – the Browns’ first West Coast swing under Stefanski – will be the tougher assignment. The Chargers can be sneaky good under first-year coach Brandon Staley.

Game 6: home v. Arizona, Oct. 17, Sunday, 4:05 p.m., FOX

Game 7: home v. Denver, Oct. 21, Thursday, 8:20 p.m., FOX, NFL Network, Amazon

Game 8: home v. Pittsburgh, Oct. 31, Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS

This three-game homestand is a gift. Each team would be so much tougher on its home field. If Woods’ lighter, faster defense wasn’t yet up to speed v. Patrick Mahomes in Game 1, Kyler Murray presents the next-best test. The Broncos are a safe opponent for the only prime-time game at home. Like the Bears’, though, their defense will stress Baker Mayfield & Co. The benefit of the Thursday night game is the resulting mini-bye – 10 days to prepare for the first division game of the year against the Steelers. It is so imperative for the Browns not to give back the psychological edge they gained in humiliating the Steelers in the 2020 wild-card game. For that reason, I believe this is the most important game of the first half of the season.

Game 9: at Cincinnati, Nov. 7, Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS

Game 10: at New England, Nov. 14, Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS

Because of potential division tie-breakers, each game against the Bengals is critical. The Browns can’t afford not to sweep. Joe Burrow and his terrific trio of receivers – Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins – will stress Woods’ defense. The Patriots are an unknown at this point. Will it be Cam Newton or rookie Mac Jones at quarterback? The Browns have never defeated Bill Belichick in Gillette Stadium. Then again, they’ve never faced him without Tom Brady.

Game 11: home v. Detroit, Nov. 21, Sunday, 1 p.m., FOX


Game 12: at Baltimore, Nov. 28, Sunday, 8:20 p.m., NBC

Bye week

Game 13: home v. Baltimore, Dec. 12, Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS

This will be an interesting stretch. Home teams always have an edge in prime-time games and M&T Bank Stadium is always a tough venue. Lamar Jackson is the ultimate test for Woods’ lighter, faster defense. The bye week comes late, but the mini-bye after the Game 7 Thursday night game makes it more manageable. Plus, the bye gives Stefanski an extra week to prepare for an absolute must-win rematch against the Ravens in FirstEnergy Stadium. This is a big scheduling perk because while the Browns are off after the first Baltimore game, the Ravens have to play the Steelers before turning around for the Cleveland rematch. This should be THE pivotal three weeks in the AFC North race.

Game 14: home v. Las Vegas, Dec. 18 or 19, TBD

Could be a Saturday game. Could be on Sunday. Either way, the Raiders dismantled their massive offensive line, so they won’t be controlling the line of scrimmage like they did last season.

Game 15: at Green Bay, Dec. 25, Saturday, 4:30 p.m., FOX, NFL Network, Amazon

This sucks. First Christmas Day game ever for the Browns. On the Frozen Tundra? Mark my words, it will be Aaron Rodgers at quarterback for the Packers, trying to secure home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. This is essentially a prime-time game for the Browns, though a late-afternoon kickoff. It’s the only game on at the time. Colts at Arizona follows at 8:15 p.m.

Game 16: at Pittsburgh, Jan. 3, Monday, 8:15 p.m., ESPN

If the top of the AFC North is congested, as expected, sweeping the Steelers is a must for the Browns to capture their first division title since 1989. Will Big Ben be shipped off to the glue factory by then? Doesn’t matter. As usual, the two Pittsburgh games are the crucial ones for the Browns..

Game 17: home v. Cincinnati, Jan. 9, Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS

A final perk bestowed the Browns by the NFL. Division tie-breakers could hinge on this game. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh finishes at Baltimore. An absolute gift to the Browns.

Games 18, 19, 20: TBD.