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Cleveland Browns' 2021 schedule: Playoffs could hinge on Week 17 MNF tilt at Steelers

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The Cleveland Browns’ 2021 schedule was released along with the rest of the NFL slate on Wednesday.

The 2021 NFL season will kick off on Thursday, Sept. 9 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hosting the Dallas Cowboys (8:20 p.m. ET). ESPN’s Monday Night Football opener on Sept. 13 will feature the Las Vegas Raiders hosting the Baltimore Ravens (8:15 p.m. ET).

The NFL will change its schedule for the first time in 44 years, expanding to 17 regular-season games. The final regular-season games will be played Jan. 9, 2022. The playoffs begin Jan. 15, 2022 and continue through Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13, 2022 at Los Angeles' SoFi Stadium.

Here's what is in store for the Browns:

Schedule

Sept. 12: at Kansas City

Sept. 19: vs. Houston

Sept. 26: vs. Chicago

Oct. 3: at Minnesota

Oct. 10: at Los Angeles Chargers

Oct. 17: vs. Arizona

Oct. 21: vs. Denver

Oct. 31: vs. Pittsburgh

Nov. 7: at Cincinnati

Nov. 14: at New England

Nov. 21: vs. Detroit

Nov. 28: at Baltimore

Dec. 5: Bye

Dec. 12: vs. Baltimore

Dec. 19: vs. Las Vegas

Dec. 25: at Green Bay

Jan. 3: at Pittsburgh

Jan. 9: vs. Cincinnati

Strength of schedule: 9th, .518

Biggest takeaway

Two of Cleveland’s biggest games of the season will take place on holidays – with the Browns hosting the rival Pittsburgh Steelers on Halloween before traveling to Green Bay to face the Packers on Christmas Day. The Browns will also be in the spotlight Jan. 3 for a Monday Night Football showdown against Pittsburgh. The Browns had to defeat the Steelers on the final regular-season Sunday last year to clinch a playoff spot, and the following weekend, they won in Pittsburgh for their first playoff victory in 26 years. This late-season primetime bout figures to hold major postseason implications, as well. And Heinz Field should be rocking, as Pittsburgh aims to avenge last season's playoff shellacking.

One storyline to watch

The AFC North could be decided by Cleveland’s back-to-back tilts against the Ravens, coming on Nov. 28, then Dec. 12. The Browns will have the added advantage of a bye week in between to game plan Baltimore and make any necessary adjustments to slow quarterback Lamar Jackson. Split those meetings, and Cleveland could be in position to win its first division title since 1989. Sweep the Ravens, and the Browns will be in the driver’s seat.

What Vegas thinks

The oddsmakers have the Browns win total at 10. Cleveland has a rather difficult slate, which includes the rugged AFC North, plus road trips against at least five other (Kansas City, Minnesota, Los Angeles Rams, New England, Green Bay) playoff-caliber opponents. The Browns will need to win a couple of those to have a decent shot of hitting the over.

Bold prediction

In a rematch from last year’s divisional playoffs, the Browns will knock off Kansas City for just their second season-opening victory since returning to the NFL in 1999 (Cleveland defeated Baltimore to begin the 2004 season.) The Browns have not won a game in Week 1 since, falling to the Ravens last year in the opener, 38-6.