The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Browns are AFC North favorites. The Steelers and Ravens welcome the challenge.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield's Browns are the preseason favorites to win the AFC North. (David Richard/AP)

Ben Roethlisberger is buying the hype about the Cleveland Browns. At least that’s what he’s saying, whether he truly believes it or he’s merely playing along to shift the burden of expectations to someone else.

“We’re going to have to face them twice this year,” the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers said recently, standing on the field after a training camp practice in Latrobe, Pa. “They’re the favorites to win it. I think we’re third or fourth in the AFC North. So we’ll see what happens.”

So does that mean Roethlisberger is acknowledging that the Browns are the favorites to win the division?

“Sure,” he said with a grin.

Can the Steelers actually make this addition-by-subtraction thing work?

It is an unusual occurrence, indeed, when the Browns are the NFL’s “it” team. But that’s what they are. Baker Mayfield enters his second season after demonstrating as a rookie that he is an honest-to-goodness, faith-restoring franchise quarterback. General Manager John Dorsey put the rebuilding process on fast-forward when he traded for superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in the offseason.

And now the Browns are the trendy pick to prevail in the AFC North and perhaps emerge as a threat to go deep in the AFC playoffs. They have sucked up much of the national attention while the division’s usual powerhouses, the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, face transitional seasons and have been, at least in relative terms, overlooked. And, yes, the Steelers and Ravens have noticed all the adulation being sent the Browns’ way.

“You can’t help but notice it,” Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr said recently at training camp in Owings Mills, Md. “Every time you turn the television on, it’s a breaking story of that team or whatever. But we like it, man. We like to just stay under the radar and grind, grind, grind. When it’s time to shine, when the lights come on, we do our thing. So we’re going to play Ravens football regardless. We’ll try to win each and every game and go out there and ball. So we don’t really care what they say. Talk about us, not talk about us — the games are played on the field.”

Carr sidestepped the question of whether he is a believer in the Browns’ advance billing.

“Our division is solid,” he said. “We have three other opponents that are going to give us their 'A' game each and every week. Six games, we’ve got to bring it every week, man. So I’m excited just to have a lot of competition across the board that you can’t go to sleep any Sunday.”

The Browns last reached the playoffs in the 2002 season. They last won a division title in the 1989 season, before the franchise moved to Baltimore and the new Browns resumed play in 1999 as an expansion team. The post-expansion Browns have had only two winning seasons, in 2002 and 2007, and they cemented their laughingstock status when they went a combined 1-31 in 2016 and 2017 under Hue Jackson.

That is beginning to feel like a long time ago. Dorsey surprised some by making Mayfield, rather than fellow quarterback Sam Darnold, the top selection in last year’s draft. But Mayfield justified Dorsey’s faith in him, keeping the Browns in playoff contention until late last season after Jackson was fired and replaced on an interim basis by Gregg Williams.

A year ago, Freddie Kitchens was a position coach. Now he's carrying Browns' Super Bowl hopes.

Dorsey and owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam passed over Williams and promoted Freddie Kitchens from offensive coordinator to head coach in the offseason, and the Beckham trade made the Browns the team that everyone was paying attention to. Cleveland’s offense now is loaded with Mayfield, Beckham and fellow wideout Jarvis Landry, tight end David Njoku and running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Hunt will open the season serving an eight-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.

“I think that’s all just how nature goes,” Ravens safety Tony Jefferson said. “That’s just how the world moves. When something [is] new and you attract the community and the outside by bringing in top-notch players, obviously the attention is going to be focused on those moves and what they possibly can do. So that comes with it. But at the same time, we believe in our roster. We love the challenge. They’re in our division, our division rivals. They’ve done a great job in the offseason. And it’s our job to go out there and compete.”

The Browns acknowledge that the task ahead of them — living up to their newfound and considerable expectations — is what matters.

“It’s exciting,” Jimmy Haslam said during the offseason at the annual league meeting. “The town is excited. We’ve got great fans, and we’re looking forward to the season. But we’ve got to perform on the field, right?”

The Browns’ potential ascent comes with the Ravens and Steelers facing questions. The Ravens have second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson entering his first full season as an NFL starter. They said their offseason farewells to Joe Flacco, who led them to a Super Bowl victory during the 2012 season, and linebacker Terrell Suggs, their longtime defensive leader. The Steelers allowed running back Le’Veon Bell to exit in free agency after he sat out all of last season in a contract dispute and traded disgruntled wide receiver Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders.

But they’re conceding nothing to the Browns at this point.

“It’s like: What can a prediction really do? Even if we were predicted to be the favorite, we’ve still got to go out there and prove it,” said Steelers running back James Conner, who stepped in for Bell last season and made the Pro Bowl. “That’s every team in this [division]. You’ve got to go out there and prove it. They’re a talented team. But there’s the Ravens, the Browns, the Steelers, the Bengals. They’re all talented teams. We’ll worry about them when we’ve got them in the season. And the team that makes less mistakes will win.”

One thing is certain: Games against the Browns this season will be highly anticipated.

“I’m super excited to … play against them this year,” Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. “They have a great team.”

A great team, huh? How often is that said about the Browns entering the season?

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