Pat McManamon, ESPN Staff Writer 183d

Predicting the Browns' first chance to erase the zero in 2018

The last thing the Cleveland Browns need in 2018 is a bad start.

Following an 0-16 season with an 0-2 or 0-3 beginning would be calamitous for a team trying to rebuild its image.

The Browns’ ideal situation would be to win their opener, but that’s not something that’s happened over the years. Since 1999, the Browns have lost 18 of 19 season openers, 14 at home.

There have been many forgettable moments.

In 1999, the Browns returned in prime time after a three-year hiatus. They had comedian Drew Carey on the field, they had a military flyover, they had a packed house. They lost to the Steelers 43-0.

The opener in 2002 featured the infamous Dwayne Rudd helmet toss, but that’s barely the beginning of season-opening hijinks.

They lost when their punter got kicked in the facemask on a return, when their quarterback got caught under the U.S. flag in pregame and when they could not get out of the defensive huddle fast enough to get lined up to stop a touchdown pass.

Against the Steelers in 2007, the Browns used a punter they signed two days before the game; he dropped the snap on his first kick, which went 15 yards; the Browns were flagged for four penalties on the play. In the 2017 opener against Pittsburgh, the Browns had a punt blocked on their opening possession, and the Steelers recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.

Does this kind of thing happen to other teams?

All of this is in the past, of course, but it does make for intriguing "what-ifs" for 2018. The best scenario for the Browns opener would be to have a winnable matchup and ... well ... win. Yes, it sounds crazy; the Browns have won only once in their last 32 games and once in 19 openers since 1999. But 16 teams win on every season-opening week; the Browns eventually have to be one of them. It’s important to note, though, that even with past struggles the team will look at any future game as winnable, as it should.

What team will the Browns face in the opener?

History since 1999 shows:

The Browns have opened against Pittsburgh three times, twice since 2014.

They have opened against Cincinnati twice and Baltimore once. Their only season-opening win was over the Ravens in 2004.

Other openers were against five AFC teams and seven in the NFC, including the Eagles twice.

That’s not much of a pattern. Throw out the 1999 opener when then-owner Al Lerner asked to open against Pittsburgh -- a classic "careful what you wish for" scenario -- and the Browns have opened against six teams that had a winning record the year prior. Two were 8-8, the rest had losing records.

In the past eight seasons, the Browns opened only once against a team with a winning record the year before -- last season against Pittsburgh.

From 2010 through 2016, they opened against teams that averaged six wins the previous year.

That falls into a general pattern that the league has followed. Because the NFL wants all teams competitive early, the belief is the league will have like teams open against each other -- good teams against good teams, teams that struggled against teams that struggled.

Pittsburgh in 2017 was the aberration, but the other seven seasons the Browns did not face a team that was above .500.

Whom does that point to in 2018?

The Browns’ 2018 schedule includes home and away against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati. The home schedule also has Atlanta, Carolina, Kansas City, the Chargers and the Jets. Other road opponents are Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Oakland, Denver and Houston.

Going by the “similar team” theory, several teams can be eliminated: Pittsburgh (13 wins), Baltimore (which just missed the playoffs), Atlanta (10), Carolina (11), Kansas City (10) and New Orleans (11).

The Chargers and Raiders seem like long shots because the league has a Monday night game on the West Coast that features two West Coast teams. It’s also tough to see the league asking the Browns to travel to Denver or Houston for the opener (though it could happen).

Which leaves Cincinnati, the Jets and Tampa Bay.

Tampa Bay is possible given that the Browns opened there in 2010. Yes, it’s a lengthy road trip, but the Bucs are working to build a winning team.

Cincinnati also is possible; the Browns opened against the Bengals at home in 2005 and 2011. Asking the Bengals to come to Cleveland would make sense. The Browns have not fared well against the Bengals lately, losing seven in a row and eight of nine.

Given all the factors, the Jets are the best option. They are a struggling, building team with quarterback questions, and the two teams played in the opener in 2015. The Browns won’t be favored in any opener, but the Jets seem to be a team that in Cleveland would give the Browns a chance to compete to win -- not that that's a determining factor for the NFL.

Add it up and the Browns' first chance to ensure they do not go winless two seasons in a row figures to be at home against the Jets.

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