Tuesday April 15th, 2008

Don't know if you've heard, but the color that will be all the rage in the NFL this fall is brown. Cleveland Brown. It'll be everywhere. Just watch.

The long downtrodden but recently resurgent Browns have been deemed ready for their close-up by the league schedule makers, and that's why we should all prepare to see plenty of Derek Anderson and the rest of his high-scoring, play-making teammates.

If there's anything that jumps off the page with the release of the 2008 NFL regular-season schedule Tuesday, it's those five prime-time appearances that Cleveland will make this season.

The Browns getting so much exposure is the sure sign that the NFL feels Romeo Crennel's club -- which went 10-6 but missed the playoffs in 2007 -- is a young, exciting team on the rise that bears watching. So we will. Watch that is. Cleveland, which hasn't made a Monday Night Football appearance since December 2003, will make three this season: Week 6 at home against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, Week 11 at Buffalo and Week 15 at Philadelphia.

The Browns will make their prime-time debut in 2008 with a Week 2 Sunday night home game against AFC North rival Pittsburgh -- their first appearance on NBC's prime-time showcase -- and they'll help kick off the NFL Network's third season of live late-season games with a Week 10 visit from Denver.

Entering their 10th season since being brought back from NFL extinction as a 1999 franchise team, the Browns have all the components that the league loves to shine a spotlight on. A high-powered offense -- led by Anderson, the out-of-nowhere Pro Bowl quarterback of last season -- some positive buzz created by Cleveland's acquisition of linemen Shaun Rogers and Cory Williams, and receiver Donte' Stallworth, and a challenging schedule that will test the Browns' ability to take the next step in their development as an AFC contender.

Cleveland plays eight games against 2007 playoff teams, including five of its first seven opponents. Overall, the Browns play 10 games against teams that were at least .500 last season, and the only team on Cleveland's schedule that won fewer than seven games last season is Baltimore, which went 5-11 to finish last in the AFC North.

Besides all those primetime appearances, the Browns will play four more 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. games, the first of which is Week 1 at home against the defending NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys, who had the best record in their conference last season at 13-3. By comparison, Cleveland last year played 12 of its 16 games at 1 p.m. on Sunday, with only four late-afternoon time slots and no primetime games.

From virtual obscurity to a headline act. That's the quick trip the Browns have taken. Like many, I have Cleveland as the team to beat in its division this season, with its first trip to the playoffs since 2002 predicted.

Make no mistake, Brown is very in this year.

• Here are the 10 games I don't want to miss this season.....

1. New England at Indianapolis, Week 9 -- The NFL's best rivalry resumes, and while putting this game on the first week of November has become quite familiar, the new twist is that this showdown will be played in the Colts' new Lucas Oil Stadium, which is set to open late this summer.

Between them, the Patriots and Colts own five of the past seven AFC championships, and there's always the captivating Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning debate to sink our teeth back into.

2. New England at San Diego, Week 6 -- The Chargers lost to the hated Patriots three times in a 13-month span of 2007-2008, the latest of which was in January's AFC title game in Foxboro, their second consecutive season-ending loss to Bill Belichick's bunch. That game is remembered for San Diego superback LaDainian Tomlinson sitting out almost the whole way due to a knee injury, but it's also notable that New England hasn't won since.

3. Indianapolis at Cleveland, Week 13 -- I don't know if any Browns fans noticed this, but if the Colts had beaten the visiting Titans last season in Week 17, Cleveland would have made the playoffs. It's true. I looked it up.

But alas, it was not to be. The Colts rested many of their injured starters (and some who weren't) and lost to the Titans, who qualified for that AFC wild-card berth that would have been the Browns'. The tank job turned in by the Colts still rankles aplenty in Cleveland, and Colts head coach Tony Dungy is almost certain to hear about it all day long.

4. Minnesota at Green Bay, Week 1 -- It'll all be so weird. Kind of like the first time we saw Giuliani without the comb-over. But the Packers will actually play a meaningful game without Brett Favre at quarterback for the first time since mid-September 1992, which, for perspective sake, was six weeks before Clinton was elected. Bill, not Hill.

Finally, in year four of his NFL career, Aaron Rodgers gets his first start. When was the last time we waited that long to see a first-round quarterback get his chance? Maybe never.

5. Indianapolis at San Diego, Week 12 -- Just the way the Chargers can't beat the Patriots, the Colts can't beat the Chargers. San Diego beat Indy late in 2005, ending their perfect season bid at 13-0. The Chargers beat the Colts twice last year, picking off Peyton Manning six times on that rainy Sunday night in San Diego in Week 10, and again, much more painfully, in the AFC Divisional playoff game, the final game ever played at Indy's RCA Dome.

The Mannings don't like San Diego to begin with, starting with that whole Eli mess in the 2004 draft. But now the Chargers are really starting to grate on Peyton's nerves.

6. Dallas at New York Giants, Week 9 -- The Cowboys thumped the Giants twice last year in the regular season, amounting to almost all of their eventual three-game advantage over New York in the NFC East. But when it mattered most, Dallas and Tony Romo choked on that big apple in their throats in the playoffs, coughing up the NFC's No. 1 seed and homefield advantage in the postseason.

That's going to make Romo vs. Manning must-see TV this year, times two. Wade Phillips can talk all he wants about Dallas winning 13 games and the division title. Tom Coughlin's guys shocked the world and copped the biggest prize of all.

7. San Diego at New Orleans, Week 8 -- No matter how much the NFL tried to hype the historic Giants-Dolphins Week 8 game in London last October, it still seemed like an afterthought due to the presence of the sad-sack Dolphins. The rainy, dreary weather and the slip-and-slide of a playing surface at Wembley Stadium didn't help.

But this year's England-based game should stand on its own two feet. The Chargers and Saints have two of the most high-powered offenses in the league, and you can make the case that the game is a possible Super Bowl preview without sounding like a complete idiot. It'll be Saints quarterback Drew Brees versus his old team, with the added bonus of Saints running back Reggie Bush facing off against his hometown Chargers.

8. Detroit at San Francisco, Week 3 -- The Lions and 49ers have had coaches in common before -- think Marty Mornhinweg and Steve Mariucci -- but it's never felt personal before. But there will be a bit of ill will in the air for this year's Mike Martz Bowl. The ex-Lions offensive coordinator is now the 49ers offensive coordinator, and he'd love to hang up a couple of very crooked numbers against Detroit, a team that never really embraced his mad-genius ways.

9. Seattle at Arizona, Week 17 -- Unless the Seahawks make the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season -- which is probably a pretty good bet -- this will be the swan song for Seattle head coach Mike Holmgren, who announced months ago that 2008 will be his final season. Holmgren has cut a rather unique -- somewhat walrus-like -- figure on NFL coaching sidelines since the mid-80s, and I'll miss the sight of him turning all red in the face at whatever miscue was just turned in by his quarterback, be it Brett Favre or Matt Hasselbeck.

10. Miami at Buffalo (or Toronto), Week 14 -- Brilliant move by the NFL. Bills fans were irate at the idea of losing a home game to the good folks of Toronto, until they found out that it was only Buffalo's annual ritualistic flogging of the Dolphins in the wintry chill of Orchard Park, N.Y.

But the league didn't get off that easy, because now Canada is mad and the city of Toronto is threatening to host the game as part of a exhibition doubleheader with the CFL's Argonauts facing off against one of those teams named the Rough Riders. Or Roughriders. (And yes, I do know the CFL's Grey Cup has been played by early December, so hold off on those emails, dear readers. I only jest).

• Can't help but wonder if the NFL Network's season debut in Week 10 -- Broncos at Browns -- will be seen by all the fans who care to see it? If we're still talking about this particular showdown come November -- NFL vs. Big Cable, Part III -- things could get ugly with the nation's football fans.

• Last year the Patriots had the NFL-maximum six night games, and five more games that were 4:15 p.m. Sunday kickoffs. Not that it fazed them much, since they still managed a perfect regular season. After having four of their first seven games start at 1 p.m. on a Sunday, the Patriots had just one more of those the rest of the year, which prompted New England owner Robert Kraft to request as many 1 p.m. home games from the league as possible.

But the league can't do much about the Patriots' killer road schedule this year, which includes four of the longest trips NFL teams can take -- from Boston to San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland and Seattle -- as well as New England's annual blood feud at Indianapolis.

• Then again, maybe the Patriots have a right to feel a bit picked on again this year when they look at Buffalo's schedule, their AFC East rival. The Bills have home games against San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland and Seattle, the same four Pacific Time Zone teams that New England has to travel to.

• You know what New England at Oakland in Week 15 means, don't you? Randy Moss back in the Black Hole for the first time since his entirely forgettable two-year stint as a Raider. The face-painting, chains-wearing crazies should be in full voice for that one. And if Moss has one of those monster days he's known for and makes his old team pay, I'm not sure Oakland owner Al Davis is going to be able to sit there and take that particular galling turn of events.

• Speaking of reunion games of headline significance, there really aren't many on this year's schedule. The Falcons' Michael Turner returns to San Diego in Week 13, and Julius Jones and the Seahawks make a trip to Dallas on Thanksgiving, but other than that, there's not much to get all worked up about.

Jerry Porter and the Jaguars don't play Oakland. Alan Faneca and the Jets don't get a shot at the Steelers. Asante Samuel and the Eagles won't have to defend against Moss, Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots. Zach Thomas won't get to face Miami as a first-year Cowboy. Justin Smith and the 49ers aren't playing Cincinnati. Kris Jenkins and the Jets don't play Carolina. Cleveland's Shaun Rogers can't get revenge on the Lions, and ditto for Tank Johnson, he of the Cowboys but formerly of the Bears.

And lastly, if the Pacman Jones trade does eventually get done and Jones returns to the field this season, the Titans can't possibly pay for it this year. Dallas and Tennessee don't meet, which takes that potential hype-fest off the table.

* Of the potential coaching reunion games, the pickings are pretty slim as well. Rookie head coach John Harbaugh of Baltimore gets to match wits with his former boss of nine years in Andy Reid when the Eagles play at the Ravens in Week 12. And Washington's Jim Zorn goes back to Seattle, where he was quarterbacks coach for Mike Holmgren, in Week 12.

But all those ex-Dallas coaches who went with Tony Sparano to Miami don't get a shot at the Cowboys, and ex-Jacksonville defensive coordinator Mike Smith won't see the Jags this year in his new role as Atlanta's head coach. With the Falcons and Patriots not meeting, we won't get a Thomas Dimitroff trying to build a new version of New England down south storyline either.

• Miami at St. Louis in Week 13 is worth a look, if only to see the top two picks in this year's draft go head-to-head for the first time. It'd be kind of fun if it wound up being Dolphins defensive end Chris Long trying to get the best of Rams offensive tackle Jake Long all day....uh, long.

Or vice versa, with Rams defensive end Chris Long going up against Dolphins offensive tackle Jake Long. Take your pick. Lord knows I've tried.

• Holmgren's farewell tour in Seattle has at least one very nice touch to it: He and his Seahawks will face no fewer than four teams that are led by former Holmgren assistants: Washington (Zorn), Philadelphia (Andy Reid), Buffalo (Dick Jauron), and Tampa Bay (Jon Gruden). That should save Holmgren a few phone calls and goodbye emails.

• The Adrian Peterson Revenge Tour rolls on. Of the six teams that passed on the Vikings running back in the 2007 draft, he got to play against three of them as a rookie: Oakland, Detroit and Washington. He'll add two more to that list this season: at Tampa Bay in Week 11 and at Arizona in Week 15.

• Green Bay plays at Seattle in Week 6, in a rematch of their NFC Divisional round playoff from January, that memorable snowy tableau at Lambeau that wound up being Brett Favre's final win as a Packers icon (maybe). Here's hoping the weather gods even up the score for the hometown Seahawks with one of those drenching Seattle rains on game day.

• Somebody give me credit for getting through this entire story without once listing any team's strength of schedule percentage. In the NFL, where change seems to be the only constant, there is no less meaningful, but ever-popular statistic.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.