ATLANTA -- Through the first month of the season, the Cleveland Browns had one of the NFL’s softest schedules.
The fourth-softest, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
Going forward, Cleveland will face one of the toughest remaining schedules in the league.
The second-toughest, in fact, according to FPI -- highlighted by a monster upcoming seven-game gauntlet featuring a series of playoff hopefuls and Super Bowl contenders, which includes five of FPI’s top eight ranked teams.
In falling to the Falcons on Sunday -- preceded by a Week 2 collapse against the Jets -- the Browns squandered a prime opportunity to capitalize on a favorable early schedule. Now, Cleveland will have to knock off some of the league’s top teams in the coming weeks to have any hope of hanging around in the rugged AFC playoff picture.
“We just gotta take it week-by-week,” said running back Kareem Hunt. “We know we can play with the best of the best. We’re gonna find a way to bounce back and get over this [loss].”
That won’t be easy.
Mayfield is last in the league in QBR (15.3) by a considerable margin. Flacco is a 37-year-old backup. Trubisky was just benched in favor of rookie Kenny Pickett. And Mariota completed only seven passes against Cleveland, tied for the fifth-fewest in a win in Falcons history.
Next Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS), the Browns take on the Chargers and talented passer Justin Herbert, who is back to slinging the ball around despite suffering a fractured rib cartilage injury earlier this year. Last season, Hebert passed for 398 yards and totaled five touchdowns in a come-from-behind win over Cleveland.
Cleveland might also have to defend Tua Tagovailoa, who was leading the NFL in QBR before suffering a frightening concussion in Thursday’s loss to Burrow and the Bengals; the Browns don’t travel to Miami until Nov. 13.
“Got to get back to the basics,” said linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, of a Browns defense that now ranks just 28th in the league in efficiency. “Got to get takeaways. ... make sure to focus on those things that we focused on in camp.”
The silver lining for the Browns is that they remain tied for the lead in the AFC North, alongside the Bengals and Ravens.
But considering Baltimore’s two losses came against Buffalo and Miami (and the Ravens led big in both games) Cleveland’s current first-place standing shouldn’t feel too reassuring.
“Just gotta play to your potential,” said Browns wideout Amari Cooper. “That’s all you can really do.”
Suspended quarterback Deshaun Watson will be allowed to re-enter the Browns training facility next Monday. But Watson, who violated the NFL’s personal conduct policy by engaging in sexual assault during massage sessions, won’t be allowed to begin practicing again until Nov. 14. He isn’t eligible to play until Week 13, when the Browns travel to the Houston Texans, either.
Can the Browns stay afloat until then? Or will the season be teetering?
It might already be teetering because of who the Browns have lost to so far, and who they now have to beat.
“Our plan is one week at a time,” said quarterback Jacoby Brissett. “For us to look at the remaining schedule. … that’s just not who we are. And we won’t do that. We’ve just gotta learn from this [loss] and get ready for next week.”