No team needs to win opener more than hapless Browns

BEREA, Ohio -- Offensive lineman Joel Bitonio channeled "Hard Knocks" when he recently discussed the Cleveland Browns' 2018 season.

“We’ve got to win some f---ing games ... oh, excuse me ... sorry about that,” Bitonio said as the Browns prepared for Sunday's opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bitonio’s comment came in the context of some teammates talking about following a historically bad winless season with a playoff appearance. Crude as it was -- and it was unusual for Bitonio -- it did sum up where the Browns are as the season approaches.

Every team wants to win its opener.

Many teams need to win the opener.

But the Browns are a team that desperately needs to erase the zero from the win column -- as soon as they can. Eliminating the zero would lift a burden that figures to grow heavier each week. It would end the questions about going winless. It would allow the coach and players to take a deep breath.

But as long as the zero remains, the pressure will increase -- probably exponentially with each loss. Every loss will increase media attention on the woeful Browns, and in turn increase the questions about being winless.

“The opener is the first chance we can change that,” tight end David Njoku said. “So it’s definitely that important.”

“Whew,” Josh Gordon said of a win. “That’s like the equivalent of making a playoff run, making the playoffs. For us it’s almost a Super Bowl win.”

“The Super Bowl is in February,” coach Hue Jackson said, “but it is a huge game for us.”

Right tackle Chris Hubbard played in Pittsburgh last season but understands the importance of a win.

“To be honest, it would mean everything to the city and to us to get this first game, this first win out of the way,” he said.

“It’s been a long time,” Bitonio said, “and if you can get a win early in the season, it kind of propels you to know, hey, it’s not going to happen again.”

There are many elements to this game. It’s an opener, and the Browns have not won a season opener since 2004 (yes, that’s correct). They haven’t beaten Pittsburgh since 2014 and have lost 10 of 11 to their “rival.” The Browns have one win over the past two seasons. Hubbard played in Pittsburgh last season, and Todd Haley was the offensive coordinator for the Steelers before joining the Browns. It’s an AFC North game, and it’s a home game.

But there is also the reality that, as general manager John Dorsey said, “it’s one of 16 games.” As Dorsey spoke, he smacked a table with his hand as he stated each word.

Wouldn’t he want to open against a 2-14 team?

“Its’ one of 16 games,” Dorsey said.

Which is accurate. Just as it’s accurate when Haley said that “every week is the biggest game of the year.” That attitude is what has helped make Bill Belichick successful in New England. And that attitude helps teams stay on an even keel.

“We can’t overthink continuing the streak or anything like that,” guard Kevin Zeitler said.

And they can’t get ahead of themselves -- though some players talking playoffs may have done just that.

“We have a lot of confidence in what the group of men in the locker room, the coaching staff, the front office can accomplish,” center JC Tretter said. “But it’s about putting it on film and actually executing. We can think we have all the talent in the world, but until we start showing people what we can do, it doesn’t really mean much, so starting off fast and getting wins under our belt early is going to be really important to this team."

A loss Sunday would give the Browns 17 in a row, which would match the longest losing streak in team history, set in 2015 and 2016 (and ended thanks to Jamie Meder’s blocked field goal on Christmas Eve against the Chargers).

“All I can say is it’s a different team this year,” Zeitler said. “The last two years have been rough on the organization, the city, the players. Everyone’s been really feeling it.”

Dorsey pointed out after the final 53-man roster was determined that 59 percent of the roster was overturned from a year ago. There is a new quarterback, new receiver, new running back and at least two new starters on the offensive line.

Ending the losing streak against Pittsburgh also would mean a lot. Gordon said the team has a better chance on Sunday than it had in any of the previous five games he has played against the Steelers.

“It is our division rival,” Jackson said. “It is an AFC [North] game, so it really counts as two at the end of the day. I think we all recognize that, and we want to get to winning as fast as we can, but it is a 16-game season and we get that, too.”

“It’d be an eye-opener for the rest of the league,” defensive end Myles Garrett said. “And I feel like it’d definitely [put] this in motion and it would get the momentum going, and guys would really see what we’ve been doing and what we’re doing is fruitful.”

Players said the roster turnover makes for a fresh start for a team eager and ready to forget 2017 in its entirety.

“That’s exactly what it is, a clean slate,” Gordon said. “It’s just a weight off your back a bunch of these guys weren’t here prior to. It doesn’t even resonate with them what happened or what’s gone on here. I think that’s a good thing. They’re absentminded of it and that’s a great place for them to be.

“The guys that were here, we need to get to that as quickly as possible. If anybody is having any type of feelings about what’s happened in the past. Because it’s over. We’re here today. That’s why the season ends and it starts again.”

Correspondent Ryan Isley contributed to this story.