Browns 2021 schedule back-loaded with AFC North games, with Ravens, Steelers in prime time
The release of the NFL schedule Wednesday night put a new twist on trick or treat in Browns Town.
Every game is important in the NFL, and some will get more attention than others.
But the most crucial showdowns for the Browns in the 2021 season won't begin until Halloween.
The Browns will open the regular season on the road against the defending AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs at 4:25 p.m. Sept. 12 in a rematch of Cleveland’s Jan. 17 loss in the divisional round of the playoffs at Arrowhead Stadium.
Seven weeks later, the Browns will play their first of six AFC North games when they host the Pittsburgh Steelers at 1 p.m. Oct. 31 at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Steelers won the division last season, yet the Browns went 2-1 against them and prevailed Jan. 10 in a wild-card game at Heinz Field.
Six of the Browns' final 10 regular-season games will be against AFC North foes.
Browns vs. Ravens in back-to-back games
The quirkiest part of their schedule features consecutive games against the Baltimore Ravens separated by a Week 13 bye. The Browns have faced the same opponent in back-to-back games during the regular season just once before — the Philadelphia Eagles in 1957.
Although the Browns are coming off their most successful season in 26 years (11-5 and 1-1 in the playoffs), they went 0-2 against the Ravens and finished third in the division in 2020. The Steelers (12-4 and 0-1) and Ravens (11-5 and 1-1) are among the five 2020 playoff teams on this year's schedule.
“The Ravens are a team we have a tremendous amount of respect for, so we know we have our work cut out for us,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said in a news release. “There are some really challenging matchups in our division, which is how we expect it.”
Browns on Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football in 2021
The Browns are slated to appear in four nationally televised games, including three in prime time. Those numbers could increase due to the possibility of flexed games and because the Browns have a home matchup versus the Las Vegas Raiders with an undetermined date and kickoff time (Dec. 18 or 19).
The Browns' first meeting with the Ravens will be on NBC's “Sunday Night Football” at 8:20 p.m. Nov. 28 in Baltimore. The second one is set for 1 p.m. Dec. 12 in Cleveland.
The sequel against the Steelers in Week 17 will be on ESPN's “Monday Night Football” at 8:15 p.m. Jan. 3.
The Cincinnati Bengals will visit FirstEnergy Stadium for the regular-season finale at 1 p.m. Jan. 9. This year's first installment of the Battle of Ohio will be in Week 9 at 1 p.m. Nov. 7 in Cincinnati.
Browns play on Christmas Day for first time
The other national TV appearances will be a Week 7 home game against the Denver Broncos at 8:20 p.m. Oct. 21 on “Thursday Night Football” and a 4:30 p.m. Christmas Day visit to the Green Bay Packers in Week 16. If reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers leaves the Packers, will he be quarterbacking the Broncos? Either way, both of those games will be available via FOX, NFL Network and Amazon Prime.
The Browns are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, and they have never previously played on Christmas.
“Lambeau's a place I know well. It's an incredible stadium,” Stefanski said. “It's a matchup I know our fans will be excited about on Christmas Day, and we're looking forward to playing in such a storied place like Lambeau.”
Stefanski is familiar with the Packers because he worked in the NFC North for 14 seasons as a member of the Minnesota Vikings. The Browns will visit the Vikings in Week 4 at 1 p.m. Oct. 3.
Browns vs. Cardinals means Mayfield vs. Murray
Speaking of reunions, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield will get a shot to earn bragging rights against Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray when the two Heisman Trophy winners and No. 1 overall draft picks from the University of Oklahoma square off at 4:05 p.m. Oct. 17 in Cleveland. The Cardinals were added to the list of Browns opponents in late March, when the NFL approved the change from 16 regular-season games to 17.
The Browns will have a three-game homestand in Weeks 6-8, when the Cardinals, Broncos and Steelers come to town.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, attendance at the first two Browns home games of 2020 was capped at 6,000 fans until the Ohio Department of Health increased the limit to 12,000 for the remainder of the season. The team is gearing up for full capacity this fall.
“This year, home-field advantage might be bigger than any year in recent memory with teams dealing with crowd noise week in and week out,” Stefanski said. “We're really excited to have nine home games in front of our fans in front of what I hoped is a packed building. I know what it sounded like with 12,000, so I can't wait to see what it's like with 67,895.”
The home opener will be in Week 2 at 1 p.m. Sept. 19 against the Houston Texans and preceded by a measuring-stick game against the Chiefs everyone will be talking about for months.
Despite superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes missing much of the second half because he had been placed in concussion protocol, the Chiefs eliminated the Browns 22-17 four months ago en route to Kansas City's second Super Bowl appearance in a row. The Chiefs fell 31-9 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Browns' record in season openers
The Browns are 1-20-1 in Week 1 since their rebirth in 1999 and haven't won an opener since 2004. The defense revamped this offseason by General Manager Andrew Berry will face a daunting task out of the gate. Working with as many as nine new starters, defensive coordinator Joe Woods will need to hit the ground running against Mahomes and Chiefs coach Andy Reid.
“Every year stands on its own merit. For us, the focus is on the 2021 season,” Stefanski said. “Now, I realize that last game, last year ended in Kansas City, so that certainly is something we have to learn from. It will truly be a matchup that is unique to 2021. The game won't start in the fifth quarter from last year's game.”
Browns' 2021 strength of schedule
Another comparison with 2020: The schedule wasn't as difficult, at least on paper.
The Browns have the ninth-toughest slate in the NFL this year, based on their opponents' combined records from last season (140-130-2, .518 winning percentage). By the same metric, they entered 2020 with the fourth-easiest one (118-138, .461).
They also have more talent this time around and what appear to be legitimate title aspirations.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cleveland Browns 2021 schedule
Week 1, TBD, at Jacksonville Jaguars, TBD/News 5 Cleveland
Week 2, TBD, New York Giants, TBD/News 5 Cleveland
Week 3, Sun., Aug. 29, at Atlanta Falcons, 8 p.m./NBC
Week 1, Sun., Sept. 12, at Kansas City Chiefs, 4:25 p.m./CBS
Week 2, Sun., Sept. 19, Houston Texans, 1 p.m./CBS
Week 3, Sun., Sept. 26, Chicago Bears, 1 p.m./FOX
Week 4, Sun., Oct. 3, at Minnesota Vikings, 1 p.m./CBS
Week 5, Sun., Oct. 10, at Los Angeles Chargers, 4:05 p.m./CBS
Week 6, Sun., Oct. 17, Arizona Cardinals, 4:05 p.m./FOX
Week 7, Thu., Oct. 21, Denver Broncos, 8:20 p.m./ FOX-NFLN-Amazon
Week 8, Sun., Oct. 31, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1 p.m./CBS
Week 9, Sun., Nov. 7, at Cincinnati Bengals, 1 p.m./CBS
Week 10, Sun., Nov. 14, at New England Patriots, 1 p.m./CBS
Week 11, Sun., Nov. 21, Detroit Lions, 1 p.m./FOX
Week 12, Sun., Nov. 28, at Baltimore Ravens, 8:20 p.m./NBC
Week 13, Bye
Week 14, Sun., Dec. 12 , Baltimore Ravens, 1 p.m./CBS
Week 15, Dec. 18 or 19, Las Vegas Raiders, TBD/TBD
Week 16, Sat., Dec. 25, at Green Bay Packers, 4:30 p.m./FOX-NFLN-Amazon
Week 17, Mon., Jan. 3, at Pittsburgh Steelers, 8:15 p.m./ESPN
Week 18, Sun., Jan. 9, Cincinnati Bengals, 1 p.m./CBS
Sunday night games in Weeks 5-17 subject to change; Week 18 TBD
Home games in BOLD