CLEVELAND (AP) — Joe Burrow sometimes seems too good to be true.
In just three seasons, he's taken the NFL by storm, leading Cincinnati to an unexpected Super Bowl appearance and consecutive AFC title games while establishing himself as one of the league's elite quarterbacks.
Only 26, and there's hardly a flaw on his resume.
Except for his record against the Browns.
Burrow, who returned to practice this week after missing more than a month with a strained calf, is just 1-4 against AFC North rival Cleveland heading into Sunday's season opener, when he'll match up with Deshaun Watson and a defense that has had his number so far.
Although his stats have been pretty solid — completing 66.2% of his passes with 10 touchdowns — Burrow has been a loser against the Browns. He's 23-13-1 versus everyone else.
In typical Burrow fashion, he offered no excuses for his failure.
“They're a really good team,” he said when asked about his struggles versus Cleveland. "They got Myles Garrett. They always got great pass rushers. They got great corners. They make plays on offense.
“Their O-line is really good. Nick Chubb is one of the best running backs in football. They got Deshaun, who obviously is one of the best quarterbacks in football. They just have great players all around. It’s always a challenge when you go up against those guys.”
On Thursday, Burrow agreed to a five-year, $275 million extension, making him the highest-paid player in league history, a person familiar with the deal told The Associated Press. The contract includes more than $219 million guaranteed, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it hadn’t been announced.
For much of the summer, Burrow's challenge has been getting healthy.
He put a scare into the Bengals and their fans when he pulled up in a July 27 practice and had to be carted off the field on the second day of training camp.
Burrow said earlier this week that he expects to start, but acknowledged there are days when the calf feels tight. It's a long season, and the Bengals, who are favored to defend their division title, won't take any chances with their franchise QB.
Burrow did his best to stay in shape while he was out, and was able to fine-tune mechanics that didn't need a lot of work.
“I’m spinning it (the ball) as good as I ever have,” he said. "It’s jumping off my hand as good as it ever has. I work on that every offseason. You work on little things here and there that are going to find you that extra mile per hour or that extra rpm or is gonna help you put it in a smaller window.
“So you work on those things every year, and it’s just another year of that. So I’m in a great spot.”
This will be Watson's second time he's played against Burrow since joining the Browns. Unlike in 2022, when he served an 11-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy, Watson's starting this season in uniform.
Watson was still knocking off rust in Cleveland's 23-10 loss to Cincinnati last season, his second game after returning.
Although he doesn't know Burrow well, Watson said he admires his game.
“It's the grit. It’s the fight. The competitiveness and just the swagger he's got and all those attributes,” said Watson. "I can keep going on and on, but he’s one of the best in the game for a reason. And he’s had all the success in the world because he works at it.
“So a lot of respect for Joe.”
Burrow will be working behind the best offensive line he’s had since entering the league.
The Bengals signed four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to protect the QB's blind side. The 6-foot-8, 345-pound Brown allowed just four sacks in 1,113 snaps last season for the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
Brown was the top offseason investment for Cincinnati, which signed him to a four-year, $64 million deal.
“He’s looked great,” Burrow said. “He’s always thinking about ways he can find an advantage. He’s always asking me about my drops. He’s just a student of the game, and when you have a guy like that, really every guy on our O-line is like that, they’re always trying to find an advantage here or there that’s going to help them find an advantage on Sundays.”
TOP-HEAVY EARLY SCHEDULE
The Browns will find out quickly where they stack up inside their division.
Cleveland faces Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the first four weeks, a gauntlet of tough games that could go a long way to shaping the season.
Since realignment in 2002, the Browns have never won the AFC North. And it's been since 1989, when it played in the AFC Central, that Cleveland last won a division title.
While several players downplayed the importance of starting fast, Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio, the Browns' longest-tenured player, said it's vital Cleveland gets off on the right foot.
“We have urgency,” he said. “Guys want to go out there and compete and get ready to go, but we know it’s a long season, 17 games. You don’t win or lose it in the first week, but we’re excited to get out there and play as a team to start the year off.”
BENGALS' AWUZIE RETURNS
The Bengals lost their bedrock safety tandem of Jesse Bates III and Vonn Bell to free agency. But the secondary will be boosted by the return of Chidobe Awuzie, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the loss to Cleveland last Halloween.
Awuzie’s first game back will be on the field where his 2022 season ended.
“In any player’s career, when they go through something like that, to know that he’s less than a year removed from that happening, mentally that’s a huge accomplishment at the level of football that these guys are playing,” Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. “It’ll be emotional for him, I’m sure.”
AP Sports Writer Mitch Stacy in Cincinnati contributed to this report.
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