The Cleveland Browns have been the butt of jokes and the laughingstock of the NFL for most of the last 20 years, but they have a chance to change all of that starting Sunday at home against the Tennessee Titans.
After a promising finish to last season and more changes this offseason, Cleveland appears on the verge of becoming a legitimate contender in the AFC. The city of Cleveland is at a fever pitch, thanks to quarterback Baker Mayfield, a plethora of uber-talented playmakers, a feared pass rusher, and a head coach (Freddie Kitchens) who seems ready to lead Cleveland to AFC North supremacy.
Tennessee at Cleveland
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 8 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Cleveland -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Chemistry between Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr.
Mayfield already has developed a connection with Jarvis Landry and David Njoku, but it will be fascinating to watch how quickly Cleveland tries to establish ODB. The Titans feature a trio of capable cornerbacks in Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Adoree' Jackson, and appear on paper to be equipped to throw a variety of looks at Beckham and Mayfield in regards to coverages and man-to-man situations. Beckham has a temper and I'll be dialed into watch how he acts if he's not seeing enough targets in his first game in a Browns uniform.
2. Titans vs. the run
Tennessee was middle of the road last season against the rush, ranking 18th at 116.4 yards per game allowed. While many eyes will be on the quarterback and skill players on the perimeter in this matchup, keep an eye on the Titans' defensive front against the Browns' offensive line. Cleveland running back Nick Chubb is the key to this game. If he can pick up where he left off last year, and the Titans continue to be mediocre against opposing running backs, it would lead you to think that defensive coordinator Dean Pees will be in for a long day with having to drop eight in the box to stop Chubb and try to force Mayfield and Cleveland to be one-dimensional.
3. Browns' revamped pass rush
Beckham wasn't the only key player Cleveland got in the trade with the New York Giants. Olivier Vernon also came in the deal and he will team with Myles Garrett to give the Browns a fearsome pass-rushing duo. How the Titans handle them and protect Marcus Mariota will be one of the keys for their offense. Adding to the degree of difficulty up front is the absence of left tackle Taylor Lewan, who is serving a four-game suspension to start the season. His replacement is Dennis Kelly, who has played in 73 games for the Titans and Eagles in his career after being taken in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. While Kelly is a solid backup/swing tackle, he's no Lewan, a three-time Pro Bowler who also is one of the league's highest-paid tackles. Factor in concerns at right guard and whether or not right tackle Jack Conklin can return to elite form and you have another storyline to watch. Will new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith be able to establish the running game with Derrick Henry as his lead horse? And is Marcus Mariota ready to show he's a bona fide NFL starting quarterback? Look for these questions to be answered on Sunday.
The Dawg Pound in FirstEnergy Stadium is going to be howling on Sunday. I expect both teams to be a bit sloppy early on. Cleveland, due to the hype, excitement and expectations piled on to this team; the Titans, due to just trying to survive the initial atmosphere and dealing with their own internal issues. Once this game settles in I think we see both teams seeking ultimate balance on offense, with both the run and pass. Ultimately, I think the Browns are just a more dynamic team with more game-changers on both sides of the ball. I expect this game to go down to the final four minutes and for Cleveland to squeeze out a three-point win.
Prediction: Browns 23, Titans 20
— Written by Nick Kayal, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network as a college football and NFL writer. Nick is a Morning Show Host in Nashville on 102.5 The Game. Follow him on Twitter @NickKayal.