Four days to Latrobe: Browns as favorites? ☕️


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Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Turn on the TV, fire up any NFL website or look at a magazine, you'll find a similar prognosis for the AFC North.

The Browns are now the "favorite" to win their first division title since George H.W. Bush was president in 1989. Heck, even their own players are openly talking about winning the Super Bowl.

"I know one thing -- that the Browns are going to the Super Bowl this year," rookie cornerback Greedy Williams declared on a conference call with reporters soon after he was selected in the second round of the draft.

"That's a fact."

Is it really? The Browns, like Williams, have to learn to walk before they run. Yes, they appear to be talented -- on paper -- but the game is played by men on a football field.

As Lee Flowers so aptly put it in 2001 when speaking about the upstart Buccaneers, the Browns could be considered "Paper Champions." The Bucs turned that around in 2002, winning the Super Bowl, but in 2001, they were more talk than walk.

The Steelers are cognizant that these Browns are better than before, but they're also not going to bend the knee to them just yet. They'll let things play out on the field.

The Steelers are used to being the hunted. The Browns have rarely even qualified as a hunter. Now, it appears the Steelers are hunting the Browns.

10 days: Does Ben still have 'it?'
9 days: Is the defense fixed?
8 days: How to replace AB?
7 days: How do rookies fit in?
6 days: Turnovers, please?
5 days: Back by committee?

"With Cleveland, I'm excited that they have a good team," said Steelers cornerback and former Browns star Joe Haden. "They have really great fans. They deserve to have a good team there.

"My first season here (2017), we went 13-3 and we won so many close games. More and more, you understand how tight it is when the playoff race comes. You've got to win those games that you should win because there are only 16 of them."

Cleveland is better. The offseason brought them receiver Odell Beckham Jr., defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and defensive end Olivier Vernon — big names, all. They seemingly have gotten some draft picks right in recent years, as well, most notably with quarterback Baker Mayfield.

But it's still a roster with some holes. Journeyman Greg Robinson is the left tackle. Morgan Burnett was signed after his release by the Steelers following one injury-plagued season to start at free safety. Williams is a talented young cornerback, but fell to the second round because of questionable tackling skills.

And there's little in the way of winning culture on which to fall back for new head coach Freddie Kitchens, who has never been a head coach at any level.

In fact, the Browns haven't had a winning season since 2007. They have appeared in the playoffs just twice since 1989, losing to -- who else? -- the Steelers on both occasions.

And since rejoining the NFL in 1999 after a three year hiatus when Art Modell moved his franchise to Baltimore, the Browns have won just six games and tied one against the Steelers, losing 34 times. That one win came in 2014.

Only two current Browns -- guard Joel Bitonio and linebacker Christian Kirksey -- have won a game in their career against the Steelers while with Cleveland. Haden, a first-round draft pick by the Browns in 2010 who joined the Steelers in 2017, has as many wins over the Steelers in a Browns uniform as the entire Cleveland roster with two.

And that's not really an accident. The Steelers have avoided losses against the Browns over the years even when they've been outplayed or made massive mistakes -- such as last year's tie in the regular season opener -- because they know how to win. The Browns? That's something they're going to have to learn.

"Being here, we're just so used to the culture of winning," said Haden, one of 11 current Steelers who have been voted to a Pro Bowl. "That's what we do here. It's expected. Now, it's really going to help us out that we're not just going to be placed in the playoffs. We still have a good group of dudes who feel like the underdog. I don't think we've ever felt that before. And I think that's going to make a little chip on our shoulder."

As much as people want to make this about the demise of the Steelers and rise of the Browns, Cleveland finished third in the AFC North standings last season at 7-8-1. The Steelers were 9-6-1, while the Ravens won the division at 10-6.

The Browns are better, to be sure. And the Ravens suffered some key losses in the offseason, including inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, top pass rushers Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith, and safety Eric Weddle.

The Steelers had losses as well from last season, most notably, Antonio Brown, but there's a general feeling in the locker room that it might be a good thing.

"This locker room is tight," guard Ramon Foster said. "We're all on the same page. We've all got the same goals."

Those would be winning a Super Bowl. And to do that, the Steelers first feel they have to win their division, the easiest way to qualify for the postseason.

In that respect, what happened last season, stumbling after a 7-2-1 start, and now seeing the Browns picked as the division favorites, could wind up helping the Steelers.

After all, since the Browns won their last division title, the Steelers have done so 14 times, been to the Super Bowl four times and won twice.

"If you're anointed all the time, you kind of get used to stuff," Haden said. "You kind of take stuff for granted. But in this league, every single year you've got to go out and prove it on the field."

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