I fully get the premise that NFL schedules are amorphous in that the quality of opponents changes. A team that is supposed to be good has injuries or troubles. A team that was last one season goes to first the next.
Predicting the difficulty or ease of a schedule can change.
But the schedule matters. A lot. And it matters especially who a team plays and when it plays them.
It’s tough, very tough. Not because of the teams the Browns play. Their opponents won just 46.5 percent of their games a year ago.
The problem is when they play them.
Like the opener. There’s no mistaking or fudging the reality that games in Pittsburgh have been a nightmare for the Browns. Since 2000, they’ve won once there, and that was 10 years ago. Every game has its own little drama, from the Thursday night igloo embarrassment to the Colt McCoy concussion. The last place, the very last, that the Browns would want to open would be in Pittsburgh.
Bingo. Opener in Pittsburgh.
Now, it’s also true that a win in Pittsburgh would be a great momentum builder, and a great way to start the season and a coach’s tenure. But an “aging” Steelers team knows it doomed itself a year ago by starting 0-4, so it will be focusing on a fast start coming off an 8-4 finish a year ago.
Of the 16 options for the Browns, this particular opener is one of the worst.
Then, the Browns play the second week against one of the four playoff teams on the schedule -- the New Orleans Saints. This will be a tough, physical, challenging game against one of the league’s best quarterbacks.
The following week, it’s Baltimore. Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger are 28-2 against the Browns, and Mike Pettine gets them both in the first three weeks. And he gets them in three of the first five games, because after an early Week 4 bye, Pittsburgh comes to Cleveland in Week 6.
Three of the first five games are against division teams, a fourth against a playoff team, and the Browns haven’t even faced Cincinnati.
Things do lighten up after the Steelers game. In a six-game stretch the Browns face five teams that struggled mightily last season. The sixth game is tough -- at Cincinnati on Thursday night. But the other five -- Oakland, Tampa Bay, Houston, Atlanta and Buffalo -- combined to go 20-60 in 2013. Only Buffalo won more than four games at 6-10.
If the Browns hope to get anything done this season, that stretch might be the time to do it.
The final month ... well that’s a nightmare that includes home games against the Colts and Bengals, and road games against Carolina and Baltimore.
This last month features ...
Four teams that went a combined 42-22 in 2013;
Three playoff teams and a fourth that annually knocks on the door;
Consecutive road games to finish the season, at Carolina and at Baltimore, which means four of the final six are on the road -- because the Browns play at Atlanta and at Buffalo heading into December.
There’s no sugarcoating this schedule. It’s tough, very tough. Yes, it’s on paper and yes the games aren’t played on paper.
But if one were to draw up a challenging schedule for a team that’s learning each other and new systems, it might just be one like this.
The league did the Browns no favors.
Which of course means this, too: If the team accepts the challenge and beats it, it would be quite the season.