BENGALS QB BRANDON ALLEN VS. BROWNS CB DENZEL WARD
Allen got the word he would be making his ninth NFL start when Joe Burrow texted him on Tuesday, "Tag, you're it," as "The Battle of Ohio," morphed into "The Skirmish for The Buckeye State."
Boy, what a difference 63 days makes when the Bengals and Browns reconvene Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) in Cleveland.
After Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield upped his record to 3-0 over Burrow in Cleveland's stunning 41-16 win in the season's first "Battle of Ohio," both teams were 5-4 as dusk fell on Paul Brown Stadium, just behind the 6-2 first-pace Ravens
Ward had set the tone on the day's first series when he stepped in front of Bengals rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase at the goal line and turned it up the left sideline for a 99-yard pick-six that included a cutback sending Burrow sprawling to the turf and beginning a miserable day Chase fumbled and also dropped what may have been two touchdowns.
But every Ohio school kid knows the rest of the story since Nov. 7.
The Bengals have won three straight with Burrow headed to the MVP conversation and the Browns have lost three straight with Mayfield headed to surgery. Last week Chase knocked the record book flat with 266 yards against the Chiefs as the Bengals clinched the AFC North title while he set NFL rookie records for yards in a game and a season with 1,429. That helped Burrow finish off his regular season with two torrid final games of 971 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions. Pick-six or otherwise
Chase is 12 yards shy of Chad Johnson's club record, but it's unclear if head coach Zac Taylor is going to let him get it as he preps for next weekend's Wild Card Game instead of what was supposed to be Sunday's flexed prime timer that would decide the fate of both teams and the division.
Now the only thing that is going to be decided is performance-based pay.
While Burrow went limited in Thursday's practice, the Browns looked like they were going to have most of their estimable sixth-ranked defense intact, meaning Allen has to be wary of the ubiquitous Ward and always formidable pass rusher Myles Garrett and his 15 sacks. Although Ward (groin) has missed both practices this week and may not go.
"There's always challenges week-to-week," said Allen before Thursday's practice in the run-up to his sixth start as a Bengal. "Obviously there are a lot of guys getting a good opportunity this week to step up and play in a real game situation. The challenge is keeping the standard that has been set for us from the starters and the kind of work they've put on tape and how they've played."
With Burrow beginning his ACL rehab, Allen started five of 2020's final six games as the undermanned Bengals quietly primed the intangibles for this playoff run. An injured knee forced Allen to miss the pivotal 27-17 Monday Night win over the Steelers engineered by Ryan Finley, but his 371-yard effort the next week in Houston when he beat Deshaun Watson in a 37-31 shootout showed why he's the perfect backup quarterback for Taylor's system as the Bengals racked up their most points since Andy Dalton put up 37 in wins over Atlanta and Tampa Bay in the month before A.J. Green was lost for the 2018 season.
After he completed 78 percent of his passes against the Texans, it was believed Allen became the first Bengals quarterback to complete 69.4 percent of his passes in his first four starts while hitting better than 70 percent twice.
"We knew we were out of the playoffs, but you still saw how connected of a team we are," Allen said. "We still went out and performed well. You saw the fight each person had individually and collectively as a team and that carried over to this season."
The Bengals went 1-4 in the games that Allen started, but if you can remember back that far the Bengals were without running back Joe Mixon. Without left tackle Jonah Williams. With banged-up slot receiver Tyler Boyd making only one catch in the last three games. With Tee Higgins missing all but the first three snaps of the last game.
And Chase getting ready for the draft.
Of course, Allen may have a similar cast in Cleveland, but there's no question he's a cool and seasoned quarterback-journeyman who can carry out Taylor's instructions.
That was on display on Allen's 37th and 38th snaps of the season, which happened to be the last two of last Sunday's goal-line chaos against the Chiefs. When Burrow got hammered on the same fourth down play Kansas City committed a penalty to give the Bengals a first down on the one-inch line with 46 seconds left, Allen was summoned to do two things to set up Evan McPherson's winning 20-yard field goal.
Since the Bengals had no timeouts, he had to take a knee and then spike it.
In that order.
While making sure no one false started or committed any other tragedy.
"Then there would have been a 10-second runoff and the game could be over," said offensive coordinator Brian Callahan.
But Allen calmly pulled it off, although he put a scare into the Tri-State while letting the play clock tick all the way to one before snapping it and spiking it with two seconds left.
"I was very aware of getting the play off," Allen assured. "I was watching the play clock. I knew we had time on the game clock. I knew we were going run it down to one on the play clock, snap it, and spike it and I knew there'd be at least two or three seconds on the game clock for the field goal to end the game."
Allen said he didn't check the timeouts when he came off the sideline, but once he took the knee, Taylor informed him via his helmet mike that there were none and he couldn't take a knee, but had to spike it.
"He really understands what's happening," Callahan said. "The good thing about Brandon is that he's really in tune to the game. He knew exactly what we were going to do there. It's a situation we've worked before. It's one we've talked about. It wasn't new for Brandon. The hard part was making sure he understood he had to clock it and not take another knee. That would not have been good.
"Nice job by him keeping everyone calm and collected and not getting ahead of ourselves."
He won't take two bigger snaps Sunday no matter his final stat line.