When the 2023 NFL schedule was revealed Thursday night, there were some very interesting games to be played right off.
The season kickoff game pits the Super Bowl champions Kansas City Chiefs at home against an up-and-comer in the Detroit Lions. No doubt this allows the champs to raise their next title banner to the excitement of their fans.
The Green Bay Packers will play their first game without Aaron Rodgers against the Chicago Bears. The Miami Dolphins on the road against a very good Los Angeles Chargers squad should be the game of the week. Other notables include the Dallas Cowboys at the New York Football Giants, then the following night the hometown New York Jets will host the Buffalo Bills.
The 5 best 2023 NFL primetime games, including a Super Bowl 57 rematch pic.twitter.com/tYfitrsobs— For The Win (@ForTheWin) May 12, 2023
Also in Week 1 are the division champs Cincinnati Bengals traveling to the Cleveland Browns.
On paper, this should be the Browns’ year. The AFC North Division runs right through Cincinnati so this veteran Cleveland team will be tested right off. Having a really good roster “on paper” has been the calling card for the Browns the past three seasons – ever since they went 11-5-0 in 2020. That was when rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski was named NFL Coach of the Year. Since that playoff season, Cleveland’s win-loss record has gone into reverse with records of 8-9-0 and 7-10-0.
These past two seasons have had squads that featured talented players that have since left such as Odell Beckham, Jr., Jarvis Landry, Baker Mayfield, Malcolm Smith, Austin Hooper, JoJo Natson, J.C. Tretter, Sheldon Richardson, Olivier Vernon, Greedy Williams, Jadeveon Clowney, Malik Jackson, John Johnson, Jacoby Brissett, Rashard Higgins, and Kareem Hunt. And this doesn’t include the starting core so the talent was there.
Last year’s seven-win season was a complete disappointment. At one point, the Browns had the fifth-best offense despite losing five of their first seven games. The worst part was they should have beaten the Atlanta Falcons, Chargers, and first Baltimore Ravens game; and had the Jets beaten mathematically if only someone was paying attention.
Once QB Deshaun Watson returned in Week 12, all that went south, but he was able to win four of the final seven contests. Watson exuded rust all over the field, especially in his first three games back from his 11-game suspension.
This off-season has been pretty good for the Browns. They have signed several significant free agents and made some good trades. As far as the NFL draft, only DT Siaki Ika may become a starter right away while WR Cedric Tillman will receive limited snaps; whereas the remainder of the picks were chosen as developmental prospects which should help the roster in later years.
After landing dead last in the division for the second year in a row, the Browns are gifted with a fourth-place schedule. Cleveland has the seventh-easiest strength of schedule in 2023 which includes games against the six worst teams in the league from last season: Chicago, Houston, Arizona, Indianapolis, Denver, and the Los Angeles Rams.
But, will it really be that easy?
Maybe this schedule is a bit tougher than first thought.
The NFL uses a system that determines “Strength of Schedule” (SOS) which basically factors the records of each of the 32 clubs from the previous season. Cleveland’s opponents had a combined record of 131-154-2 in 2022. Only six other teams have a weaker SOS factor with their schedule this year.
Several of the bad clubs from 2022 are expected to do well this year. The Jets had an identical record to the Browns with that 7-10-0 record, and with their new QB Rodgers plus several exceptional draft selections, they are viewed as a playoff contender.
The same can be said for the 5-12-0 Denver Broncos. They now possess a Super Bowl head coach in Sean Payton and have done really well in free agency signing OT Mike McGlinchey, OG Ben Powers, and RB Samaje Perine. Then they drafted WR Marvin Mims, Jr. out of the University of Oklahoma so their offense has really improved for the offensive-minded Payton.
Then there is the Jacksonville Jaguars which finished 9-8-0. That shady record is going to increase this year as their offense took two-thirds of their schedule to develop. Their problem area was the offensive line which then inked OT’s Chandler Brewer and Josh Wells in free agency plus they drafted really well bringing in OT Anton Harrison in the first round. They then finished with seven drafted players dedicated to the defense.
The Browns are looking to show improvement. Residing in the tough AFC North is not an easy task despite the softer SOS they are now facing. Cincinnati is one of the three best AFC teams. The Ravens are always a handful now that QB Lamar Jackson will be a mainstay for years to come. And the Pittsburgh Steelers always have that great defensive mentality.
Cleveland’s defense under new DC Jim Schwartz will need to become bullies going forward.
For the past two seasons since their playoff year in 2020, the league has bought into Cleveland’s “on paper” assessment and given them plenty of Prime Time coverage.
Not so this year.
The Browns are suddenly in “prove-it” mode to the NFL schedule makers. No longer do they present welcoming arms despite Watson’s presence and Schwartz’s promise of an attack defense.
In 2023, Cleveland will only have two games under the national spotlight: Week 2 against the Steelers on ABC’s “Monday Night Football”, and Week 17 at home against the Jets on “Thursday Night Football” broadcast on Prime Video.
Have the Browns been dismissed this year? Of course. They have teased the league for two years and now they are not taking the bluff. Fans of the Browns are never happy with a losing season, but at least they are used to it. The NFL doesn’t want franchises that don’t play good football for their precious national telecasts. Underachievers? Not for our network partners.
Maybe Watson will return to his three-time Pro Bowl status and towards the end of the year, the league will begin to flex some of these games to better time slots such as on the cherished Sunday evenings.
In fact, the schedule makers have installed two windows for the Browns to take advantage of.
In Week 15 against the Bears and Week 18 versus Cincinnati, the schedule is wide open as far as date and game time. This was done intentionally in the event that Cleveland does indeed step up and become topical and relevant once again. Both of these games just may be flexed to a Prime Time slot if they are playing well with a positive record and playoff implications looming.
Around the league, there is the opinion that the Browns have had a positive and productive off-season with much-needed improvements. Barring injuries, Cleveland is ready to make some noise “on paper.” Their free agency ranking was an A-.
PFF’s highest graded teams in this year’s free agency ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/oN7iQJibRr— PFF (@PFF) March 18, 2023
Pro Football Focus had the Browns ranked #21 in their off-season Power Rankings, but recently they bumped the franchise up to Number 9.
RELATED: UPDATED PFF POWER RANKINGS
The fact that Cleveland took the initiative to plug the hole that every team was running through with the free agent signing of DT Dalvin Tomlinson and selected Ika who has a pass-rushing grade of 76.4 will morph their defense into a unit more accountable.
- Right out of the gate, Cleveland has to play Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, plus Baltimore in Week 4. This will be a crucial stretch to their division needs. Going 0-3 would certainly cripple any division hopes, but going 0-3 in the conference right off decimates any Wild Card thoughts later in the year.
- Four of their first five games are at home.
- Eight teams will travel less than Cleveland which is a huge plus.
Seahawks will travel 31,600 miles this season, the most in the NFL, per @billsperos.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) May 10, 2023
Here’s how much each team will travel prior to the NFL’s full schedule release Thursday. pic.twitter.com/GTz6CU3idh
- Usually, clubs prefer their bye week around Week 9 or 10 which is more helpful with injuries. The Browns’ bye is Week 5.
- Week 12 is on the road against Denver. The following game is at the Rams. The Browns asked for and were approved to remain on the West Coast for those two weeks.
- Great Scott! the AFC is loaded at the QB position: Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Justin Herbert, Trevor Lawrence, and now this new guy Aaron Rodgers.
- For the past umpteen years, Cleveland has always finished out against Pittsburgh. This year, it’s the Bengals. Weird.
- Watson’s Christmas Eve visit to the Houston Texans should be interesting. Also, make a note of seeing OBJ in black and purple - twice.
- The Browns might have a harder schedule than their SOS suggests, but they should be well-equipped to play anyone. At least “on paper.”