If the Cleveland Browns were charted on a Richter Scale their line would look like San Francisco, 1906.
In the most recent six seasons the Browns have had one winning year, 2020, when they won eleven games and qualified for the postseason as a Wild Card behind the AFC North Division winning Pittsburgh Steelers. The Browns previous winning season was in 2002, when they earned a Wild Card berth with a 9-7 record while the Steelers once again won the division. That year, the Browns won their playoff game against the Steelers.
Wait a minute, they didn’t win the game outright, but getting eight on the point spread was enough to win the wager in a 36-33 loss. Since that heartbreak in Pittsburgh to open the 2002 playoffs, the Browns had not been back to the playoffs for 17 years. Then, two years ago, they put together another winning campaign, 11-5, and again were beaten out for the division title by Pittsburgh, who earned a division winning 12-4 campaign in 2020.
But two seasons ago the Browns didn’t get clipped in Pittsburgh, instead they turned the tables on the Steelers and took them down on their home field, 48-37. The next week, in an AFC divisional round contest, Cleveland was eliminated by the Kansas City Chiefs, 22-17, which represented another NFL postseason game that shifted the straight-up winner by virtue of the point spread.
The amazing thing about the 2020 Cleveland Browns is not that they got a win in Pittsburgh against their most hated rival, but that while they were compiling their 11-5 straight-up record their point spread mark on those same 16 regular season games was six wins and ten losses. In my nearly half a century of tracking football teams I had never seen a team that had their first winning season in 18 years and already be overrated by the books and public.
Most often, this is a spot where a first time winner will further benefit against the point spread in their first triumphant season. Typically, if when a longtime loser bursts out like the Cleveland Browns with 11 straight-up wins, their point spread record would be three games better than their straight up mark. That would plot the Browns 2020 point spread record at 14-2. Instead, they were 6-10.
I don’t know what the attraction is to the Cleveland Browns, it certainly can’t be pinned on their record for the past two decades. Only one winning season since 2002 and a last place finish in most seasons with only four or five wins. Beginning in 2016, the Browns went on the worst losing streak in NFL history, going 1-15 before losing all sixteen of their games in 2017.
Their winless campaign gave the Browns organization the first pick in the 2018 draft, which offered them the choice of the four quarterbacks that would be selected in the first ten picks that year. The Browns chose Baker Mayfield, who they recently shipped to the Carolina Panthers. The Jets picked Sam Darnold with the third pick, he is also currently in the Panthers organization. The tenth pick that year was used by the Arizona Cardinals and wasted on UCLA product Josh Rosen.
The only quarterback selected that year that has turned into a bonafide franchise quarterback is the guy selected with the seventh pick in the first round by the Buffalo Bills, Josh Allen.
But back to tonight’s game, where the Browns are favored over Pittsburgh. The Browns would like to think they have a heated rivalry against the Steelers, but in truth Pittsburgh has a lot more intense rivalry against their two other AFC North Division opponents; the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals.
So the Browns are overrated on the point spread, they haven’t had a winning season against the line in twenty years, and on opening day this year I thought they were for the first time in years underrated. The quarterback acquisition that forced Cleveland’s hand to cut ties with Mayfield, Deshaun Watson, won’t be available until Week 13. Holding down the quarterback position in Cleveland while Watson serves his suspicion is journeyman backup Jacoby Brissett.
Even as an underdog and perfectly motivated, the Browns required a late field goal from long distance to eke out a two point win in their opener against the Panthers. Last week, at home against the winless New York Jets, the Browns were once again overrated, favored by 6½ points in a game they lost, 31-30. This week, they opened as three point favorites over the Steelers, which would have been a real good number to lay with the Browns at home.
But, even while the public is heavily vested in the Steelers, nearly 70% of all wagers on this game are backing Pittsburgh as the underdog, the books moved the line up to make a Steelers wager easier and easier.
This week, the public has the Browns underrated, the books don’t.
This is a good time to remember that point spreads only come into play 16% of the time, and if we lose against the spread tonight we got the short straw. But Cleveland winning this game is what they call on the playgrounds in New Jersey, a slam dunk.
I like to call it an 84% probability.
Qoxhi Picks: Cleveland Browns (-4) over Pittsburgh Steelers