Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, a one-time Mr. Ohio Football, looks to notch his first Battle of Ohio victory Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Browns before what the Paycor Stadium crowd hopes is an economical afternoon of extending the Bengals' winning streak to five and ending Cleveland's winning streak in the series at five.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable has seen a good many of the 98 games in the rivalry, spawned by the genius of Paul Brown and the inevitability of the NFL merger. Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot and ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi have covered most of them since the 1990s, when Cincinnati Local 12 digital sports columnist Richard Skinner picked up the Bengals. Paul Dehner, Jr., of The Athletic's Bengals tandem has worked the rivalry for the last decade that stretches from Browns quarterbacks Brandon Weeden to Deshaun Watson.
In the most unanimous Ohio moment since Burrow won the Heisman Trophy, they all pick the Bengals with pretty much the same reasons. They not only have a tough time seeing Burrow going 0-5 against the Browns, but they also find it hard to think it can be extended by Watson in just his second game in nearly two years.
Let's go around The Table. Ladies and visitors first:
I have a hard team believing Joe Burrow, who took his team to the Super Bowl last year, who has defeated the Kansas City Chiefs three out of three times including last week, I have a hard time believing he's going to go 0-5 against the Cleveland Browns. I feel like in this game he is going to find a way to rise to the occasion. Of course, it's not just him. They have to figure out a way to solve pass rusher Myles Garrett. But if they're smart, they'll double, they'll chip him and give him the extra attention that he deserves and that he warrants. That's what it's going to take. They have to make sure he does not wreck the game like has in many of these four victories over Joe Burrow.
They need to try more play-action and some more pre-snap motions and things that seem to cross up the Browns. If they run the ball a lot, I think they'll be able to get the job done. The other thing about this game is that Browns wide receiver Amari Cooper suffered a hip injury Thursday and he's questionable. He says he'll play, but he may not be 100 percent with quarterback Deshaun Watson knocking off the rust.
THE EDGE: With the Bengals being at home and so much at stake in this game, with first place in the AFC North riding on this game and with the avoidance of 1-4 riding on it, I feel like the Bengals are finally going to beat the Browns for the first time behind Joe Burrow. BENGALS, 30-24.
It's more unpredictable than ever. It's just impossible to guess how much better Watson will be in his second game. At least when you had a regular quarterback in here, there would be some past performance to judge it on. But he was so bad in his first game, you want to believe he'll be better. But how much better? We don't know. I'm struggling with this one. I don't think they're going to beat Joe Burrow forever.
I think the Browns defense is in good shape mentally and physically. They've had a couple of good games in a row and they're healthy and Garrett seems to have success against the Bengals line. But I think the Browns should be worried about the new-found run game of the Bengals because they are now using their fourth different MIKE linebacker in this game after losing Sione Takitaki and I think that's going to be a negative factor for the Browns if the Bengals decide to run the ball.
THE EDGE: I think Burrow is going to get his revenge and I just can't predict that Watson is going to get that much of his game back after one week. These defensive gems they keep hurling at Burrow can't go on forever. It just doesn't make any sense. BENGALS, 26-16.
The question of the game, right, is how will Watson look? He was obviously really rough in his opener. If he can't take a massive step forward and knock off the rust this week, this is a game the Bengals should be able to run away with. Of course, they should have run away with lot of games against Cleveland in the past and for whatever reason it hasn't happened.
The way the Bengals are playing right now, along with the struggles Watson had last week against Houston, I think a couple of turnovers, interceptions, are going to be the difference. You look at how the Bengals defense has been playing and how they could exploit his mistakes and turn them into points. On the other end of that, the Bengals have done such a good job recently outside of that one game against the Browns protecting the ball. Burrow has been so good taking care of the ball.
THE EDGE: If you do a game plan similar to the Tennessee one, shut down that run game, don't turn it over, that should be more enough the way you're playing and let Watson throw you one. The End. BENGALS, 28-17
This team is playing with so much confidence in all three phases with Drue Chrisman now punting the way he is, I think they're hard to beat. When we talked to Jessie Bates on Monday and he talked about basically everyone being in the building on Victory Monday getting work in, I think it shows that this team has unfinished business that it wants to take care of this year. Now that they're playing this way, you're not going to let a game like this creep into the psyche of a let-down game, trap game because it certainly falls into that mold.
The other thing, too, is, the five-game losing streak has to bug you a little bit and for Joe Burrow not to beat these guys, it probably bugs him a lot of a bit. Listen, it's a little fluky what's happened because of the self-inflicted things that have happened to the Bengals in the last few games with the Browns. But at the same time, the Browns get a lead on you, they turn to the running game, they grind you down that way, then they turn the pass rush loose and it's a formula for success. I just think this Bengals team is playing so well right now that I don't see them slipping up. It's just Deshaun Watson's second game back and he looked super rusty in his first game. You expect him to be a little better, but I mean the dude hasn't played football (in almost two years), so I don't think you'll see him as sharp as you would see him later this year or certainly next year. And the Amari Cooper injury certainly throws something else into it.
THE EDGE: They're hot and it's time to reverse the trend. You're as healthy as you can be basically. They're missing Chidobe (Awuzie) at one cornerback and you've made up for that loss of late, and Hayden Hurst, your tight end. You have 20 of your 22 projected starters in your lineup at this time of the year? That's a pretty good place to be. BENGALS, 30-18
THE BOTTOM LINE
The last time the Bengals beat the Browns, it was the 2019 finale, "pandemic,' was a term in the history books and Joe Mixon, one of only two Bengals offensive starters to both start that day and this Sunday, rushed for a then career-high 162 yards. Slot receiver Tyler Boyd is the other starter from 2019.
How long ago? Watson was still nine months out from signing a $160 million extension with the Texans. If that doesn't make you recall Watson's screeching talent and trajectory before his career incinerated, this will. According to statmuse.com, Burrow, who turned 26 Saturday, finished with the highest completion percentage of some of the all-time quarterbacks before they turned 26. Dan Marino has the most touchdowns before the age of 26 with 145, Patrick Mahomes the most yards per attempt with 8.4, Jameis Winston the most yards with 19,737.
On that list, Burrow has the highest completion percentage at 68.5 and Watson is second at 67.8. Watson is also second behind Mahomes at 8.3 yards per throw and is also seventh in touchdowns and eighth in yards on that before-26 list. It will also be recalled he won his first NFL start at Paycor on his 22nd birthday in 2017.
But now Watson is 27 and last threw a touchdown pass in the 2020 finale. Burrow is an MVP candidate, leading the NFL in passer rating the last 11 weeks at 111.4 and for the entire season is second in touchdown passes, yards and completion percentage.
And what may decide this one is the return of two Bengals to the run defense they didn't have the last time they played the Browns and one who did play against the Bengals in the run game but won't play for the Browns Sunday.
It may be all about balance if Burrow is to get his first win against the Browns. The Bengals were on a crisp opening drive Halloween in Cleveland of seven passes and two runs when edge Myles Garrett tipped a pass for an interception that set the tone for their last loss. Since then, the Bengals have extended their record to 13-0 when they lead after the first quarter with wins over Carolina, Pittsburgh and Kansas City mixing it up.
Against the Panthers, they scored a touchdown on the first drive with five passes and four runs. Against the Chiefs they did the same thing with six passes and five runs. In Pittsburgh, they took a 10-3 lead at the end of the first quarter on seven passes and seven runs. Whatever they do, they'll be trying to defuse Garrett and his 10 sacks this season after he got them for that pick and 1.5 sacks back on Oct. 31. Garrett, the ultimate Bengals villain, has nine career sacks against them and a streak of at least one in the last five games against Cincy. According to Next Gen Stats, the only two other guys to do that against the Bengals in the last 40 years are Steelers linebackers Greg Lloyd and T.J. Watt.
With Watson just getting back, the Bengals figure to get a big dose of another nemesis, running back Nick Chubb. Chubb, well over 1,000 yards as the NFL's second-leading rusher, has three 100-yard games against them that also include two touchdowns. Another Steeler, Jerome Bettis, is the only other player to do that against the Bengals, Next Gen says.
But the Bengals have both nose tackles who didn't play Halloween, starter D.J. Reader and backup Josh Tupou. And when Reader played in Tennessee two weeks ago, the Bengals held then-NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry to 38 yards. According to Next Gen Stats, with Reader the Bengals' run defense would rank in the top three in yards per rush (3.6) and yards after contact per rush (2.3) this season. Chubb is third in the NFL averaging 4.1 yards after contact.
Plus, the Bengals are bolstered by the return of running back Joe Mixon after missing two-and-a-half games with a concussion. Mixon only carried eight times in Cleveland, but the next week he carried 15 times in the first half and in the game after that he had seven carries before he got hurt in the second quarter. While Mixon was out, Samaje Perine averaged 19 carries. So the trend has been more runs and the Browns are missing linebacker Sione Takitaki, their biggest linebacker who had 13 tackles on Halloween. The Browns will probably replace him with 227-pound Deion Jones, a guy not much bigger than Mixon.
All of it may be factors that could allow Burrow to overcome the Browns' formula against him of early turnovers turning into a quick lead and then a clock-draining run game.