The Jim Schwartz defense will be tested immediately in 2023, as Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals christen the 2023 season in Cleveland in Game 1. (Associated Press)
Browns open 2023 home against Cincinnati, first of three division games in the first month
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.
We should know very early this season if the Browns will be contenders for their first-ever AFC North title.
That’s because a challenging and quirky schedule calls for games against each division rival in the first month of the season.
The Browns open the season at home Sept. 10 against the two-time division champion Cincinnati Bengals. They follow with a “Monday Night Football” game in Pittsburgh on Sept. 18 – first of two scheduled prime-time appearances on the season. After a home game against the Tennessee Titans on Sept. 24, the Browns conclude the first month by hosting the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 1.
Fast starts have not been one of the Browns’ hallmarks in their expansion era. They are 2-21-1 in season-openers.
Under coach Kevin Stefanski, however, they have gone 3-1, 3-1 and 2-2 over the first four games. The difference is they were 1-1, 0-0 and 1-0 in division games in those years. The first month this season will have larger ramifications in the division race than in any previous year.
“It’s certainly a unique way to start the season, but I think it’s really cool,” Stefanski said in a statement released by the Browns. “I think we have the best division in football — a bunch of great players and great coaches. We know each other so well and we’ve played each other so many times. It lends itself to a great rivalry, so to see the Bengals in Week 1, Steelers in Week 2 and Ravens in Week 4 means there’s no easing into this one.”The “reward” for that difficult starting month is receiving their bye on the earliest week possible – Week 5.
“We like having the bye week where it is,” Stefanski said. “It’s going to be four really tough games to start, and then we’ll take a breather. Then, we’ll have a great opportunity in front of us with a home game against a very, very good 49ers team, and then we get on the road against some really good teams. That’s the meat of our schedule — being on the road and trying to find a way to win against really good opponents. That’s the competitive aspect of this I think our guys are excited about.”
The rematches against division rivals all occur in the second half of the schedule. They play at Baltimore on Nov. 12 (Game 9), host Pittsburgh on Nov. 19 (Game 10) and conclude the season in Cincinnati (Game 17). The date and time of the finale against the Bengals – which could determine the division champion – is listed “to be determined.” It won't be finalized until after the previous week’s games.
There are other quirks that make for an unusual overall schedule.
The Browns were sent on the road for both Thanksgiving and Christmas weekends. In fact, the stretch from Thanksgiving to the end of the season is rife with disruptions.
* They play in Denver on Nov. 26, followed directly by a game in Los Angeles against the Rams on Dec. 3. Stefanski petitioned the NFL to get two Western or Mountain time zone games on consecutive weeks. He probably will keep the team in the Los Angeles area to practice for the Rams rather than make two separate trips.
* After the long road trip, they come home for games against the Jacksonville Jaguars (Sunday, Dec. 10) and the Chicago Bears. The Bears’ game has been designated TBD, which means it is eligible to be flexed to Saturday (Dec. 16) or Sunday (Dec. 17). They won’t know until two weeks before.
* Then the Browns have two games on a short Christmas week.
They play in Houston on Christmas Eve for Deshaun Watson’s second appearance against the Texans since they traded him to Cleveland. The Browns won’t have time to celebrate Christmas because they host a Thursday night game Dec. 28 against Aaron Rodgers and the New York Jets.
“We love night games, and we love Thursday night games particularly when we’re at home,” Stefanski said. “It’s just such a cool time for our fans to get under the lights and make a huge difference in the game like they do. As competitors, you want to play in those games because you know the whole country’s watching.”
* Then comes the season finale in Cincinnati, another TBD affair. It marks the fifth time the Browns have opened a season and closed it against the same team. The last time was 2017 when they lost both to Pittsburgh to complete the franchise’s only 0-16 season.