The Cleveland Browns had their best season in a long time in 2020 behind the leadership of Kevin Stefanski, the Coach of the Year winner. The Browns reached the playoffs for the first time since 2002, won 11 games and a playoff game for the first time since 1994, and they even made the Chiefs sweat out a tough playoff game in the divisional round.
Between the Stefanski hire and the successful third season for No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield, this is what the Browns have been building towards. But it was not an easy path to get there as the team was actually outscored by 11 points on the way to finishing 11-5.
Many of the top sportsbooks have the Browns with an over/under of 10.5 wins. The only time Cleveland ever won 11 games in consecutive seasons was in 1946-48 when the team dominated the All-American Football Conference (AAFC), which was not part of the NFL. We are living in a new era of Browns football, but are we ready to wake up to a world where Cleveland is an annual contender?
On the Last Season of Browns: Points, Wins, Fun Return to Cleveland Football
After Cleveland was dominated 38-6 in Baltimore on opening day, few would have expected the Browns would go on to have such an exciting, successful season, even pushing the Ravens in a 47-42 rematch in mid-December. That was one of six games where the Browns scored and allowed at least 30 points, tying a single-season NFL record (including playoff games). It was also the only high-scoring shootout the Browns lost, going 5-1 in such games. The Browns and their opponents combined to score 827 points last year, the highest-scoring season in Browns history.
Cleveland’s season was a wild mixture of shootouts and some low-scoring affairs in inclement November weather. A constant throughout was strong offensive line play, which helped fuel a great running game with the duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt rushing for over 1,900 yards combined.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield adjusted well to the loss of Odell Beckham Jr., the team’s most talented wide receiver. After having arguably the worst game of his career in a 38-7 loss at Pittsburgh, Mayfield responded with a five-touchdown performance in a comeback win against the Bengals. In the last six games of the regular season, Mayfield threw 11 touchdowns to one interception, benefitting greatly from the play-action passing game that Stefanski brought from Minnesota to Cleveland.
After a disconcerting loss to the Jets in Week 16 put the playoffs in some doubt, the Browns rebounded in Week 17 against Pittsburgh’s backup-heavy lineup with a 24-22 win, clinching an 11th win and a wild card berth. In the rematch in Pittsburgh, Cleveland jumped out to a shocking 28-0 lead, the largest lead after one quarter in NFL playoff history. Cleveland held on in a 48-37 win, extracting some payback for playoff losses to the Steelers in their last two playoff outings in 2002 and 1994.
Expectations were for another high-scoring game with the Chiefs in the divisional round, but the Browns looked outmatched, trailing 19-3 at halftime. The decision to run the offense through Mayfield instead of the ground game was backfiring this time. Only an injury to Patrick Mahomes in the third quarter gave some new life to Cleveland, which pulled to within 22-17 in the fourth quarter. But a poor offensive series led to the Chiefs getting the ball back where they were able to run out the final four minutes. The defense that struggled throughout the season did so again, allowing backup quarterback Chad Henne to scramble for 13 yards on a third-and-14 before converting a fourth-down pass to Tyreek Hill to ice the game.
Still, it was without question the best Browns season since 1994, if not since the days of Bernie Kosar and those tough AFC Championship Game losses to Denver in the 1980s.
The Notable Changes for 2021
The Browns were driven by their offensive success last year and the good news is that the entire offense is back for 2021. By entire, that means everyone from backup quarterback Case Keenum to the starting line to the 10 leading receivers to the three leading rushers. That also means the return of Beckham, and while he has not yet established a good connection with Mayfield, he is still a very talented receiver.
Defense is where the Browns needed to make the most improvements, and it is hard to say they did enough to be considered a threat on that side of the ball. Myles Garrett, the No. 1 pick by Cleveland in 2017, has been a fantastic defender for the team. He shined with his first All-Pro selection in 2020, notching 12 sacks and four forced fumbles in 14 games. However, Garrett needs help. Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, has always been more hype than anything else. He failed to even notch a sack in eight games with the Titans last year, and the Browns will be his fourth team since 2018.
Clowney is a downgrade from Olivier Vernon, who tore his Achilles at the end of the season and is a free agent. Sheldon Richardson was Cleveland’s third-best pass rusher and he is back with the Vikings this year. The burden on Garrett looks even greater this year unless the Browns somehow resurrect Clowney’s career or jump-start the disappointing one Takkarist McKinley had in Atlanta as a first-round pick. He signed a one-year deal for $4.25 million in March.
At least the secondary has said goodbye to cornerback Terrance Mitchell and safeties Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo. Opponents ate up those players in coverage last year to the tune of 20 touchdown passes. Troy Hill comes over as a solid player from the Rams and the Browns drafted cornerback Greg Newsome (X) late in the first round.
We are not used to seeing the Browns pick so late in the first round, but that comes with winning games in this league. Now it will be on the coaches to improve this defense without the use of higher picks. Based on the lack of big additions, it looks like it will still be on Garrett and 2018 first-round corner Denzel Ward to lead this unit to success.
Regression Alert: When 11-5 Doesn’t Look Like 11-5
Before 2020, the last time the Browns were outscored in the regular season and still made the playoffs was 1985. The following year, they had their best record in the Super Bowl era (12-4) and were a stop short of reaching the Super Bowl. This year’s team will hope brighter days are in their immediate future too, but we cannot overlook how this surprise playoff season came about.
The 2020 Browns would not be the first team to get into the playoffs thanks to a soft schedule as the third-best team in the division. The 2020 Browns are however only the second team in NFL history to be outscored and still win 11 games, which was first done by Andrew Luck and the 2012 Colts.
Luck was a bit of a unicorn in a weak division, dragging three flawed Indy teams to 11-5 records in 2012-14. But the improvement in that second season was on the defensive side as the Colts went from 23rd in points per drive allowed to 12th in 2013. Last year, the Browns were also 23rd in points per drive allowed. Are they good enough to move into the top 12 this year? We’ll see.
Cleveland had a strange season with some low-scoring games that put a dent in the “great offense, terrible defense” identity of the team that showed in so many other games last year. The 2020 Browns are the 12th playoff team since 2002 to have at least four games where they failed to score more than 10 points. Of the previous 11 teams, only two made the playoffs the next year (2005-06 Bears and 2008-09 Ravens), and those teams were built on defense.
The biggest reason the Browns were outscored by 11 points on the season were those early losses to division rivals Baltimore (38-6) and Pittsburgh (38-7). In the other 14 games, the Browns were plus-52 in scoring margin. Cleary by the time those rematches rolled around, the Browns had closed the gap considerably on their division rivals. But it is not like those teams are just going to go away from contention this year, especially with the Ravens still favored to win the AFC North. The Bengals could also be better in Joe Burrow’s second year, and he had the best game of his rookie season against Cleveland at home, a last-second comeback win for the Browns.
On the way to 11-5, the Browns swept the historically inept NFC East as well as those 4-11-1 Bengals. The Browns also barely edged out bad Houston and Jacksonville teams, and regardless of backing it up with a playoff win in Pittsburgh, that Week 17 win to get there was still against Pittsburgh’s backups after Mason Rudolph failed on a two-point conversion pass.
While the Browns did not fatten their wins by beating the lowly Jets, the fact that they lost that game speaks to the lack of trust in this team as a new perennial contender. On the plus side, Cleveland can make an instant statement with the biggest win an AFC team could pull off this regular season: Chiefs at Arrowhead in Week 1.
This should still be one of the best Cleveland teams in the last two decades, but that is because the bar has been set so low. Compared to 2020, the Browns should face a more difficult schedule and it starts immediately with that aforementioned road trip to Kansas City in Week 1. Back-to-back road games with what should be better Vikings and Chargers teams is also a tough way to open October. Both showdowns with Baltimore come in consecutive games with a bye week in between. The Browns have lost three in a row to the Ravens and will have to show more in that rivalry. Instead of playing the 2020 NFC East where everyone finished with a losing record, the Browns get a decent NFC North with the Packers hosting them on Christmas.
Finally, the return trip to Pittsburgh is a Monday night game in Week 17. Regardless of what happened last season, Mike Tomlin is 16-3 on Monday night and the Steelers are 18-0 at home on Monday night since 1992. Even if the Steelers go on to have a bad season, the thirst for revenge in that one could spoil Cleveland’s shot at going back to the playoffs.
For my NFL picks, I see at least seven losses on this Cleveland schedule, so I am going with under 10.5 wins. We should see how Cleveland stacks up with the best in Week 1. Bonus points if a win comes with Mahomes playing the full game. Regardless of the standings counting all games equally, a better predictor of future performance is how you played and who you played against. The 2020 Browns did not have the usual earmarks of an 11-5 team, nor do they have the track record to confidently predict that they will do it again this year.
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