This was supposed to be the season the Cleveland Browns ascended to the top of the AFC North.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were on the decline. The Baltimore Ravens were an unknown commodity with quarterback Lamar Jackson coming off an up-and-down rookie season. And the Cincinnati Bengals — well, they’re still the Bengals.
Meanwhile, the Browns had stacked talent on both sides of the ball and appeared to finally have their quarterback of the present and future in second-year pro Baker Mayfield.
Same old story in Cleveland and Baltimore
But now we’re three weeks into the NFL season and the Browns are still the Browns, off to a disappointing 1-2 start with a stunted offense that’s failed to eclipse 13 points in each of its losses. Their lone win came against the putrid New York Jets.
And in Jackson, the Ravens now appear to have the young quarterback with the brightest future in the division — one who’s led his team to a 2-1 start with its lone loss on the road in a shootout with the juggernaut Kansas City Chiefs.
So while the Steelers are on a steep decline, everything else in the AFC North is business as usual so far.
Browns face critical test vs. Ravens
It all adds up to Sunday’s matchup between the Browns and Ravens in Baltimore amounting to a critical game for Cleveland. A 1-3 start capped by a loss to their division rivals would officially send Cleveland’s season off the rails.
For the Ravens, it’s a chance to press their foot down on their upstart rivals that were allegedly primped to supplant them atop the division.
Earl Thomas heard the hype
The Ravens are using the Browns hype as fuel. Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas may have just arrived in Baltimore this season. But he knows the score in the AFC North.
“The media was talking about OBJ and that tandem and Baker Mayfield, the next savior,” Thomas said Wednesday, per ESPN. “Then, to add on to that, Coach [John Harbaugh] talked about it a couple of times in meetings. So guys kind of got tired about it.”
Defensive tackle Brandon Williams echoed Thomas’ sentiment.
“That's just what it is — it's hype,” Williams said. “You can't really buy into it.”
Even their own coach was busy hyping up the Browns, calling them “the most talented team in the division” during the offseason.
On Wednesday, he walked those comments back.
“To me, that was an offseason question,” Harbaugh said. “I think at the time, they did have the most talent in the division.”
Don’t write the Browns off yet, but ...
It’s too early to write the Browns off as simply hype. Odell Beckham Jr. is still Odell Beckham Jr. Denzel Ward and Myles Garrett remain two of the best young defenders in football. Mayfield’s off to an ugly start, but it’s premature to dismiss him after three mediocre games.
Much of the Browns’ woes appear grounded in the play-calling and game management of rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens. There are adjustments to be made.
But they must be made quick. If the Browns can’t save their season with a victory on Sunday, it’s probably time to officially chalk the noise of the offseason up to just that.
Falling into a 1-3 hole against their most hated of AFC North rivals would likely prove too steep a crater to climb out of.
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