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Cleveland Browns At Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFL Preview - Cleveland (0-0) at Tampa Bay (0-0)

(Sports Network) - It's a mantra of every NFL season.

Regardless of how awful a team plays in the first three months of a given 16- game schedule, a strong finish in the final four of five weeks earns the label of "one to watch" the following year.

No matter that encore seasons begin nine calendar months later, and, in an age of unfettered player movement, a roster in September can be markedly changed from its December predecessor.

So what ... it makes for good copy.

Testing the tenuous axiom for 2010 will be the Cleveland Browns.

Last season - their first in the iron grip of head coach/secret-keeper Eric Mangini - the Browns lost four games, won one and lost seven more to find themselves 1-11 by Dec. 7.

But then, it seems, the "Man Genius" in Mangini took over.

Rather than cementing their status over the final four games and locking up a crack at Sam Bradford with the No. 1 overall draft pick, the Clevelanders rocked the AFC house with consecutive beatings of Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Oakland and Jacksonville.

The result in April - pick No. 7 (Florida CB Joe Haden) instead of pick No. 1 (Bradford).

The result in September - at least one analyst (New Orleans-based Ralph Malbrough) sees the Browns as a playoff dark horse.

"In November everyone will be saying, 'I can't believe team X is 7-5 and fighting for a playoff spot. Who saw that coming?' The Browns will be that team," said Malbrough, a football analyst for WWLTV.com.

"Cleveland Browns fans watched the New Orleans Saints just win the Super Bowl. If watching the Saints win a Super Bowl doesn't make you believe any team can turn themselves around then you simply don't believe in the impossible."

It's seems 1/16th less impossible when viewing their initial opponent.

In Tampa Bay, the Browns face one of six teams that picked before them in April's selection circus (Oklahoma DT Gerald McCoy) and one that was just average enough - 2-2 in the final four games after an ugly 1-12 start - to cede the September surprise moniker for this season.

Quarterback Josh Freeman showed glimpses of promise while struggling through a rookie gauntlet with the Bucs, but a broken right thumb in this year's preseason - which limited him in the team's Wednesday practice session - hasn't helped generate much positive early spin.

"The Bucs' youth movement is far from finished," said Peter King of SI.com, "and we're still in the process of finding out if (head coach Raheem) Morris, 33, and general manager Mark Dominik, 38, have a plan that will produce incremental progress."

The Browns enter the season with the NFL's 10th-hardest schedule, which will see them play opponents who combined for a .516 winning percentage last season - including 11 teams who were .500 or better and seven playoff participants.

The Bucs, meanwhile, face the 25th-ranked schedule, consisting of foes with a .480 winning clip - 11 teams at .500 or better and five who reached the postseason.

Photographs by cstreet.us, thelastminute, turtlemom nancy , fesek, kthypryn, justinwright, sue_elias, pointnshoot, and scrapstothefuture used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.