I've seen similar sentiments many places, but this post from TheBigLead pushed me just far enough to write about how the Browns compare to the Steelers. TheBigLead has the most egregious rankings disparity (Steelers fourth, Browns nineteenth), but the major sites I've checked out have them even or with the Steelers slightly better (Fox, ESPN, CBS). My sense is that the Browns are rightly ranked in the 10-12 range, while the Steelers need to be put closer to 15 than 5. Why so?
As a baseline, from the end of last season, the two teams were roughly equal, both finishing 10-6 (the Steelers got the division title via having a better record against divisional opponents). Pittsburgh swept the season series, but that stat is a bit misleading - their game in the season opener was the sole Charlie Frye start, and their week nine game in Pittsburgh required a fairly significant comeback by the Steelers for the win. The eye-test reveals the teams were roughly equal. As far as the records go, Cleveland played a fourth-place schedule while Pittsburgh got a second place schedule, translating into games with Oakland and Houston vs. Denver and Jacksonville. Alright, edge Steelers. If the preseason rankings were to be based on last year's performance, then the Steelers should rightly be a few spots ahead of the Browns.
But this is about this year. The teams have changed.
Cleveland picked up a pair of massive defensive tackles, Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers. They added Donte Stallworth as another receiving threat. Yes, they need a corner (or three), but overall they've improved.
Pittsburgh lost Alan Faneca. Two words: Steve Hutchinson. I saw first-hand what losing a premier left guard will do to an offensive line. According to Scouts Inc., the Steelers have the 24th-ranked offensive line now. And the Browns? Number one. That's not even in the same ballpark. Rashard Mendenhall is a nice draft pick, and he'll tandem nicely with Willie Parker, but a running back will only be as good as the line blocking for him. (Seahawks note: The Hawks are ranked 26th. Ouch). On the defensive side, Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton has reported to camp so overweight that he isn't being allowed to practice.
One of these teams is going in the right direction. The other is going in the wrong direction.
Finally, let's look at the schedules. All AFC North teams have a brutal schedule this year, having to play all of the teams from the two toughest divisions, the AFC South and the NFC East. However, both have identical home and road match-ups with those opponents. Wash. Of course divisional match-ups are identical, so the only difference between the schedules are the games dictated by their 2007 final division standings. Pittsburgh, with a first-place schedule, gets games against San Diego and at New England. Cleveland, meanwhile, with a second-place schedule, gets games against Denver and at Buffalo. Which set of games would you rather your team have?
In the end, all that is relevant about this match-up is who will win the AFC North. Their schedules are so difficult that the best they can reasonably hope for is a three-seed from winning their division. And with all other games being equal, their seasons essentially come down to their two head-to-head match-ups and the two games that differ between their schedules. At best Pittsburgh will match records in the two differing games, and it would be reasonable for those games to result in a two-game difference. The first head-to-head match-up is in week two in Cleveland. That game will either big Cleveland a slight lead or Pittsburgh a huge lead. And the second comes in the last game of the season. That will be a great game.
If it isn't obvious from the post, I am biased in favor of the Browns, and way against the Steelers, but I tried to structure the arguments so that they came from an objective thought-process (even if my tone didn't). This will be a fun, completely-unrelated-to-the-Seahawks match-up to follow.