The Cleveland Browns are suddenly the hunted

Dan Wetzel

From social media to magazine covers, the Cleveland Browns have embraced the hype – a level that is perhaps unprecedented for a team that didn’t have a winning record a year ago (7-8-1).

There is Super Bowl talk and thus Super Bowl expectations. The Browns head into Sunday’s season opener against Tennessee as one of the favorites. Certainly on paper, the talent is there. Just ask them.

Most of the concerns about the Browns center on whether they are somehow overconfident in themselves and thus think this will be easy. If so, they could lose focus, work ethic and quickly crash and burn.

They certainly wouldn’t be the first NFL team to fall prey to that.

Yet, it’s another X-factor that could prove more difficult to overcome and may be the biggest hurdle for the Browns’ potentially big season: what putting a premature target on your back does to your opponents.

Cleveland has made itself a frontrunner, a favorite, a circle-the-date-on-the-calendar foe this year.

They are going to get everyone’s best shot.

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This is what happens when teams have success. The league can say every week matters, but there is a psychological ebb and flow to how seasons work.

Getting to the top is hard. Staying there is even harder because everyone suddenly wants to knock you off.

Except, Cleveland now has everyone looking to knock it off when it never got to the top in the first place.

It’s one thing for New England, after all these years and with all the experience and discipline Bill Belichick and Tom Brady command, to do it.

Can Cleveland duplicate that out of thin air?

The Browns famously won five of their final seven games last year, which started this storyline. Yet each victory was against a team that finished the season with a losing record. And how many of those teams did Cleveland sneak up on during the late-season grind?

FILE - In this Aug. 8, 2019, file photo, Cleveland Browns' Baker Mayfield, left, smiles as he talks with wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. during the second half of an NFL preseason football game against the Washington Redskins in Cleveland. Mayfield isn’t concerned about the huge expectations being placed on the Browns, who went 7-8-1 during his rookie season but upgraded their roster and should compete for their first playoff spot since 2002. (AP Photo/David Richard, File)
The Browns have the stars in Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. The question is, can they handle the pressure of being a team to beat? (AP)

Until it defeated Atlanta in Week 10, the Browns were on an epic 7-56-1 streak. They were the team others coasted through. The team they could slack against.

Not anymore.

The Browns will play in prime time at least four times this season, which alone amps things up. They’ll additionally get big stages in late Sunday afternoon games against Pittsburgh and New England, which no longer look at the Browns as patsies.

This is what they wanted. And this is what they’ll get, ready or not. Coach Freddie Kitchens, himself in his first year full-time, is pointing to the need for constant improvement, sort of the way New England does it. No titles are won in September. Playoff spots aren’t even secured then.

Cleveland’s savvy draft picks and smart personnel moves are just the starting line.

“I think every one of our guys, to a man, got better,” Kitchens said of training camp. “But here’s the thing: Even though training camp is over, that doesn’t change. We’re going to continue to keep getting better every day and see where we are first week, fourth week, sixth week. Just continue to get better every day you get out there.

“We evolved from the first game to the eighth game last year,” he continued. “Just like we evolved from the eighth game to the end of the season.”

They are going to need to because on a player level, there may be no team in the league (sans the Patriots) that opposing players want to beat more than the heavily promoted Browns.

That’s a challenge. Even if Cleveland doesn’t necessarily see all of it coming.

“Nobody has done anything yet,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “I’d say everyone is starting from the same Square One. I’d say it’s pretty hard to live up to any hype if you’re listening to the outside.

“None of that really matters, so I think we have a bunch of guys who are bought into what is happening in this building, the standards we are setting,” Mayfield continued. “To us that is all that matters.”

The Browns have good reason to be confident. They have the players. The guess here is that they won’t lack motivation or effort or focus on continuing to improve across the season in an attempt to make this the special year they expect it to be.

The thing is, so will everyone else they line up against.

The Browns are already the hunted, even though they were never the hunters.

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