You wanna call the Cleveland Browns a contender? I sure want to call the Cleveland Browns a contender. Would be fun. But if you want to be considered a contender, you have to beat a contender.
Don’t get it twisted: the Browns were definitely good last year. The Browns of yesteryear, even when they had some roster talent, would lose stupid games to bad teams. And while they certainly played the Houston Texans, Philadelphia Eagles, Cincinnati Bengals, and Jacksonville Jaguars all closer than perhaps they should have—three of those teams ended up with top-five draft picks—they escaped with wins before eventually dropping a Week 16 stinker against the New York Jets (another top-five pick) that nearly knocked them out of the playoffs.
But they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers to make the playoffs, and then beat them in the playoffs. And while that kinda feels like a win over a contending team, the Steelers really had no teeth in the back half of the season. An early-season win over the Indianapolis Colts was nice, and they went punch for punch with the Baltimore Ravens in an unforgettable Monday night game, but all-in-all, the Browns weren’t able to secure one clear statement win over a true contending team.
Again: there’s nothing wrong with that! The 2020 Browns were definitely good. But they couldn’t beat the Ravens, and they fell to the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round despite Patrick Mahomes playing only 70% of the snaps. They went 3-3 against their own division and were 7-2 in one-score games, which certainly begs for some regression. During the regular season, they simply need to prove that they can punch at a higher weight.
And I think they will. A full season of Odell Beckham Jr. will help, as will avoiding that atrocious stretch of inclement weather during November. As PFF’s Seth Galina wrote of Baker Mayfield’s rise during the 2020 season, synchronicity between Mayfield and new play-caller Kevin Stefanski developed throughout the season after an initially rocky start. The Browns grew up in 2020, and their playoff win is a testament to that growth.
In 2021, they cannot afford a similarly slow start and sudden rise. They open with the Chiefs in Week 1 on the road in a rematch of the divisional round playoff game that ended their 2020 run. Cleveland again draws the Ravens twice (Weeks 12 and 14, with a bye week in between), and snags another NFC contender in the Green Bay Packers. Those are four games that Cleveland cannot enter simply as a plucky underdog should they wish to be taken seriously as a contender in 2021–they need to win at least one or two. Those are the games that decide playoff seeding and that’s something Cleveland will care about this year.
It’s good news for the Browns that they have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL off of win/loss projections in the 2021 season. It will help them secure a playoff berth and keep pace with the Ravens (23rd-easiest schedule by the same metric) for the top of the division. But if the Browns aren’t able to beat a contender in the regular season, it will be tough to buy them as a contender in the postseason, especially considering the relative youth of their team.
A divisional title is in the cards for Cleveland. They’re +145 to win the division, right behind the Ravens’ +135—and the two squads are tied with +900 odds to win the conference, behind only Kansas City and the Buffalo Bills. But a divisional title is pretty moot if Cleveland hasn’t proved that they can hang with the big dogs in the NFL, which is the necessary heat check for a team suddenly ascending into competitive status. Yes, playing the Ravens tight in primetime was a good sign; sure, stunning the Steelers with a 28-0 first-quarter flurry made for a fun playoff win. But the Browns won’t earn the benefit of the doubt until they’re able to actually beat some contenders.
A successful season for the Browns no longer includes a playoff berth—that was awesome, but they want to be more than that, and they certainly can be. Now with the ability to “act like they’ve been there,” the Browns need to act like a playoff team for the entirety of the 2021 season. That isn’t just beating the bad teams anymore; now it’s time to beat the good teams, in September and October, and all the way into January.