Playing the NFL schedule game in May is always a risky business because injuries are guaranteed.
And predicting the Browns’ record for the 2022 season will be even trickier than usual until there is clarity about the availability of quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Still, Thursday night’s schedule release revealed a logical path to a hot start for the Browns, with or without Watson, the latter scenario placing Jacoby Brissett at the controls.
Then again, no one really knows anything, especially with the Browns. They had Super Bowl expectations entering last season and went 8-9 with a third-place finish in the AFC North.
What’s easier to identify this time of year are storylines, so here are some to keep in mind.
Hot start for Cleveland?: Browns season begins on road vs. Carolina Panthers; home opener Week 2 vs. New York Jets
Week 1 (1 p.m. Sept. 11): Browns at Carolina Panthers (5-12 last season)
The Panthers became suitors for Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield after they were one of three teams that lost to Cleveland in the Watson sweepstakes. Whether Watson will play at the beginning of next season remains uncertain. The three-time Pro Bowl selection from Clemson University faces a potential suspension under the NFL’s personal conduct policy stemming from 22 active civil lawsuits filed by women accusing him of sexual misconduct or sexual assault during massage appointments. Regardless of Watson’s status, the Browns trading with the Houston Texans for him on March 18 ultimately led Cleveland and the Panthers to discuss a deal for Mayfield during the April 28-30 NFL Draft. Those talks fizzled, but if they are revisited and Mayfield lands with the Panthers, it would make for a script Hollywood would envy. Speaking of Hollywood, yes, former Browns wide receiver Rashard Higgins signed with the Panthers in March. Higgins learned about Cleveland’s futility in Week 1 during his six seasons with the Browns, who are 1-21-1 in openers since 1999.
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Week 2 (1 p.m. Sept. 18): Browns vs. New York Jets (4-13 last season)
Robert Saleh was a finalist for the head coaching job of the Browns in the 2020 offseason, when Kevin Stefanski landed the gig instead. Saleh remained the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers in 2020, then spent last season as the head coach of the Jets. Stefanski went 12-6, including 1-1 in the playoffs, in his first season at the helm in Cleveland, earning NFL Coach of the Year. But the Browns took a step back last season. Many NFL pundits expect the Jets to rise after they drafted Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner (No. 4 overall), Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson (No. 10) and Florida State edge defender Jermaine Johnson II (No. 26) last month in the first round. Of course, much will hinge on the development of quarterback Zach Wilson, who went 3-10 as a rookie starter last season. The Browns are 2-0 in home openers under Stefanski.
Week 3 (8:15 p.m. Sept. 22): Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1 and 0-1 in playoffs last season)
On the heels of the Ben Roethlisberger era ending, this edition of “Thursday Night Football” is expected to either be the debut of rookie Kenny Pickett or Mitch Trubisky in the Browns-Steelers rivalry. Pickett is the first-round pick (No. 20 overall) from the University of Pittsburgh. Trubisky is a free-agent acquisition who grew up in Northeast Ohio and starred at Mentor High School. Roethlisberger went 25-3-1 as a starting quarterback against the Browns, including 0-1 in the playoffs.
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Week 4 (1 p.m. Oct. 2): Browns at Atlanta Falcons (7-10 last season)
The Falcons were another team team that fell short in the derby for Watson, a native of Gainesville, Georgia. They subsequently traded longtime starting quarterback Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts, signed Marcus Mariota and drafted Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder in the third round.
Week 5 (1 p.m. Oct. 9): Browns vs. Los Angeles Chargers (9-8 last season)
Quarterback Justin Herbert and the Chargers outdueled the Browns 47-42 in Week 5 last season at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. The Browns were 3-1 entering the game, but after they encountered the Chargers, the rest of their season resembled a roller-coaster ride. A native of Perry, Ohio, Chargers coach Brandon Staley won’t be looking to do his hometown NFL team any favors as it seeks revenge.
Week 6 (1 p.m. Oct. 16): Browns vs. New England Patriots (10-7 and 0-1 in playoffs last season)
Bill Belichick returns to Cleveland with a record of 8-2 against the Browns since he became the head coach of the Patriots in 2000. He has prevailed in his past four meetings against the Browns, whom he coached from 1991-95. Last season, then-rookie quarterback Mac Jones shredded the Browns in a 45-7 blowout Nov. 14 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, leaving All-Pro end Myles Garrett to lament a lack of in-game adjustments made by defensive coordinator Joe Woods. Like the Chargers game, this one will be grudge match for the Browns, but they haven’t defeated Belichick since Nov. 7, 2010, when they won 34-14 in Cleveland. Also, the Browns and Patriots made a rare player-for-player trade this offseason with edge defender Chase Winovich coming to Cleveland and linebacker Mack Wilson going to New England.
Week 7 (1 p.m. Oct. 23): Browns at Baltimore Ravens (8-9 last season)
Quarterback Lamar Jackson hasn’t played since he suffered an ankle injury in Week 13 last season during a 24-22 loss to the Browns in Cleveland. The injury occurred as then-rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah hit Jackson as he threw the ball. Jackson’s predicament was emblematic of the Ravens last season because they were plagued by injuries. They lost their final six games, including all four without Jackson.
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Week 8 (8:15 p.m. Oct. 31): Browns vs. Cincinnati Bengals (10-7 and 3-1 in playoffs last season)
Quarterback Joe Burrow led the Bengals to the AFC North title and then the Super Bowl in his first full NFL season, but he has yet to beat the Browns. The No. 1 overall draft pick in 2020, Burrow is 0-3 as a starter versus Cleveland, which played by far its best game of the 2021 season when it rolled 41-16 on Nov. 7 in Cincinnati. Can Burrow overcome his early losing streak against the Browns on “Monday Night Football?”
Week 9 (Nov. 6): Bye
Week 10 (1 p.m. Nov. 13): Browns at Miami Dolphins (9-8 last season)
Former Browns wide receivers coach Mike McDaniel will be in his first season at the helm of an NFL franchise. The Kyle Shanahan protege will unleash offseason trade acquisition Tyreek Hill, a six-time Pro Bowl receiver, on a Browns secondary led by Denzel Ward, who became the highest-paid cornerback in league history in April.
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Week 11 (1 p.m. Nov. 20): Browns at Buffalo Bills (11-6 and 1-1 in playoffs last season)
For the third time in the same season, the Browns will be expected to face a quarterback they passed on during the 2018 draft, when they selected Mayfield first overall. The Panthers have Sam Darnold (No. 3 overall to the Jets) and the Ravens have Jackson (No. 32 overall). The Bills took Josh Allen seventh overall that year. Jackson was voted NFL Most Valuable Player in 2019, but Allen is the only one in the group to receive a contract extension thus far.
Week 12 (1 p.m. Nov. 27): Browns vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4 and 1-1 in the playoffs last season)
Tom Brady retired and then unretired this offseason, meaning the seven-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback is set to play in Cleveland again. He’s 7-1 as a starter against the Browns. His lone loss in the series was in 2010, when the Browns last upset Belichick. Meanwhile, former Browns defensive backs coach Todd Bowles is at the helm of the Bucs after former Cleveland offensive coordinator Bruce Arians retired.
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Week 13 (1 p.m. Dec. 4): Browns at Houston Texans (4-13 last season)
There are approximately a million connections between the Browns and Texans, but Watson’s return to Houston would be a massive national story, as long as he’s available to play.
Week 14 (1 p.m. Dec. 11): Browns at Bengals
The Browns have three AFC North matchups in their final five games. This Battle of Ohio rematch is the first game in that stretch.
Week 15 (TBD Dec. 17 or 18): Browns vs. Ravens
The Browns had just two prime-time games on their original schedule, but this is a weekend on which they could add another if they are relevant late in the season.
Week 16 (1 p.m. Dec. 24): Browns vs. New Orleans Saints (9-8 last season)
Another finalist in the race for Watson, the Saints re-signed quarterback Jameis Winston, who’s coming off a torn ACL. He’ll have two former Ohio State wide receivers at his disposal with rookie first-round pick (No. 11 overall) Chris Olave joining Michael Thomas.
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Week 17 (1 p.m. Jan. 1): Browns at Washington Commanders (7-10 last season)
A year before the Browns passed on Watson in the 2017 draft, they passed on the new starting quarterback of the Commanders, Carson Wentz. Unlike Watson, Wentz did not cause the Browns to regret their decision to dismiss him and attempt to compensate for it this offseason by handing out a five-year contract worth a record-setting $230 million fully guaranteed.
Week 18 (TBD Jan. 7 or 8): Browns at Steelers
The Browns’ schedule ends against the Steelers for the 10th time in 15 seasons. Will the rematch from Week 3 make it to prime time, too?
Nate Ulrich can be reached at [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Browns storylines for 2022 NFL schedule