The Cleveland Browns don't face the same over-hyped expectations in 2020 as they did last season, and a dozen 1 p.m. ET games on the schedule are the proof.
That could be a blessing for first-year coach Kevin Stefanski, and more success after last year's 6-10 disaster should follow.
You remember the Browns' hype last offseason. It was over the top after GM John Dorsey traded for Odell Beckham Jr. on the heels of a record-setting rookie season by Baker Mayfield. Freddie Kitchens proclaimed, "If you don't wear brown and orange, you don't matter."
Cleveland had four prime-time games on the schedule.
The Browns finished 2-2 in those games, but the record isn't what most people remember. It's the failure to throw to Beckham in the red zone in a 20-13 loss to the Rams on "Sunday Night Football." It was San Francisco defensive end Nick Bosa harassing Baker Mayfield in a 31-3 blowout on "Monday Night Football." Then, it was Myles Garrett swinging a helmet at Pittsburgh's Mason Rudolph on "Thursday Night Football."
SNF. MNF. TNF. All of that was NSFW. Not suitable for winning. The Browns were a disaster last season, the heel act was exposed and now Dorsey and Kitchens are gone.
New GM Andrew Berry and Stefanski are in, and the Browns built off a savvy free-agency plan that added tackle Jack Conklin and tight end Austin Hooper with a smart draft that added tackle Jedrick Wills and safety Grant Delpit. Mayfield and Beckham Jr. are saying the right things.
Cleveland looks like a team that can break a playoff drought that extends back to 2002, and they aren't acting like it's just going to happen on its own.
The lack of prime-time exposure is a good thing. The schedule-makers are making Cleveland prove it, and that's what should have happened last year. The Browns play on "Thursday Night Football" in Week 2 in an in-state battle with the Bengals. That matchup between Joe Burrow and Mayfield should be fun for Ohioans.
The second prime-time game is a late-season "Monday Night Football" showdown in Week 14 against the Baltimore Ravens in Cleveland. That could be the much-anticipated prove-it game for the Browns in front of the Dawg Pound.
The rest of the schedule is set up in a way that makes that path possible.
After facing the Ravens in Week 1, the Browns won't face another 2019 playoff team until Week 10 -- a home matchup against the Texans following Cleveland's bye week.
— Ben Axelrod (@BenAxelrod) May 8, 2020
Keep in mind the Browns faced the NFC West last season — arguably the toughest division in football — and finished 0-4. The NFC East presents better opportunities, and the Cowboys and Giants games don't need to be in prime time. Mayfield will enjoy a trip close to home to Texas, and Beckham should be more than motivated to face his old team.
Combine all that with the new seven-team playoff format, and yes, it's OK to be optimistic in Cleveland again.
Of course, that starts with the opener. Cleveland will travel to Baltimore, where the Browns won in a 40-25 blowout last season in Week 4 that turned out to be one of the most inexplicable results of the season.
If Cleveland won there again, it would not just set a tone for the regular season. It would be the Browns' first victory in the opener since 2004.
When you start winning in situations like that, the expectations take care of themselves.