BENGALS QB JOE BURROW VS. BROWNS QB BAKER MAYFIELD
OK, let's get it out of the way.
With the 2020s belonging to these two guys as two overall No. 1 picks pitted against each other in the same state twice a season, this neighborhood game of automatic quarterback could be the game's matchup every time the Bengals and Browns play for a while.
Because there are a slew of other enticing matchups in Thursday's game (8:20 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12 and NFL Network), such as:
Myles Garrett vs. Bobby Hart: Browns sack ace Myles Garrett, who had a docile opener in the 38-6 loss to the Ravens, can pick his tackle to rush but he has been working more and more at left end. That puts Bengals right tackle Bobby Hart under the microscope again after his struggles against the Chargers' Joey Bosa on Sunday.
In his first NFL start, Bengals left tackle Jonah Williams was unsteady early but quickly got his feet under him in time to have what is regarded as a satisfactory debut.
"I think he did a good job. There are definitely things he's going to have to get better at but for his first game against what I think is one of the top pass-rush units in the league, he did a lot of good things," said offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. "I think there's plenty of things he's going to look back and want to clean up and do better the next time out here because he's going to face a slew of rushers who all get paid a lot of money. So I thought it was a good first outing that's going to have plenty of room for improvement."
You can certainly put Garrett in that big bank category.
Browns wide receivers vs. Bengals secondary: Speaking of big money, the Browns have the richest wide receiver tandem in the league in Odell Beckham Jr., and Jarvis Landry. Now here comes the revived William Jackson III at cornerback for the Bengals playing like he did in 2017. He had two passes defensed in the opener, including bodying up big Mike Williams in the end zone to prevent a touchdown. Throw in four tackles and, well, he knows what has to be done against Browns running backs Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb.
"Landry, he's a physical guy. He'll get in your face and he'll block you. Odell is one of the faster guys out of the bunch. So, it'll be a great matchup on Thursday night," Jackson said. "I just got to be physical on the outside. We have to set the edge and we have to tackle. Coach has been saying that all week. We just have to tackle those guys. They are great running backs. They aren't going to go down with just arm grabbing. We have to go out there and be physical."
Bengals defensive line vs. Browns running backs: Speaking of the running game, don't you know what the Browns are going to try and do? The Bengals defensive tackles continue to battle numbers. Even before training camp got going, they lost three for the season (Josh Tupou, Ryan Glasgow, Renell Wren), while Geno Atkins (shoulder) missed the opener and now he and Mike Daniels (groin) are out for Thursday.
Chubb and Hunt looked to be an afterthought against the Ravens after a combined 23 carries netted nearly six yards per carry. Not if it's close.
Linebacker Germaine Pratt, off a career-high 12 tackles, looks like a different guy from last year's rookie season and although the Chargers nicked the Bengals for 155 yards rushing, their run defense looked more organized with new strong safety Vonn Bell entrusted with the helmet radio.
"A huge jump. We did a huge jump," Pratt said. "We've got to create some turnovers. We didn't have (any) turnovers. The Chargers had two. That's the reason they probably won the game, because they won the turnover margin. So we've got to get some turnovers. We've got to figure out how to create some turnovers to get Joe Burrow and them going on offense."
It always gets back to the quarterback. Especially now. A matchup like this doesn't happen every day. The last time the Bengals were in a game featuring two overall No. 1 quarterbacks was ten years ago, when Peyton Manning bested Carson Palmer in Indianapolis.
They won't go that long this time because Burrow and Mayfield meet again in 38 days at Paul Brown Stadium. But the comparisons can't wait. Overall No. 1 picks that won a Heisman Trophy with flair at a traditional college power.
"Baker is kind of a similar type of guy. He's a very swaggy and confident type of guy," said Bengals free safety Jessie Bates III. "You hate to be playing against him, you love him if he's on your team. I feel like there's always that chippy type of game when we're playing against Baker and those guys because they have a lot of confidence in themselves, which is fine. I'm sure they're going to have a lot to prove after getting whooped the other night as well."
Some would call Mayfield downright unbearably cocky. The guy that after showing up the man that drafted him No. 1 overall on the Bengals sideline, former Browns head coach Hue Jackson, had the gall to preen about Paul Brown Stadium as a rookie as the Browns routed the Bengals.
No one can imagine Burrow doing that. Jackson cuts Mayfield a break.
"I just see a guy that wants the ball, that's all I see," Jackson said. "I see a guy that's a competitor that wants the ball, and it's my job to stop him. I'm just going to go out there and play my game and hopefully we can get them frustrated a little bit."
Bengals running back Joe Mixon, who has played with both Burrow and Mayfield, thinks they are "two completely different people, honestly. And he loves Mayfield.
"Joe is more of a laid back type of guy. Baker is definitely outspoken more. To me I think they are both good dudes, but it's different."
The guy that has the biggest personality on the Bengals offense is actually Mixon. He thinks he's got a bigger personality than Mayfield himself.
"I would definitely think me, for sure. I love playing against Baker. It kind of became normal now that he is on another team," Mixon said. "We've been going against each other for two years now. At this point it is what it is. He ain't my quarterback anymore. I'm cheering for Joe Burrow. When we play against Cleveland I don't want Baker to do nothing. I want him locked up, clamped up. Whatever the case may be."
Burrow is getting love up there, too, from his old buddy at the LSU national title game celebration. Beckham is calling him "Legend," but Burrow knows he's got a way to after he did everything Sunday but win.
While everyone raved about his performance on the last drive, the two biggest points Burrow took from the Chargers film were his slow start and his inability to make the few plays that change a game.
"The thing about the NFL is there are two or three plays that dictate the outcome of the game. All the games are so close so if I make two extra plays on Sunday we win," Burrow said. "I'm just focused on be ready for when those opportunities present themselves and being ready to hit those shots and make those decisions.
"In my eyes I played terrible through three and a half quarters and then played up to my standards in the last drive and almost won the game. I know I'll be ready for it and I just have to keep that same mindset in the two-minute drill and bring that along for the rest of the season."
One of the two big Burrow takeaways from observers had to be his 0-for-5 on deep passing from the nation's most accurate deep thrower last year. Burrow wouldn't take rust as a reason.
"I don't know," he said. "I just have to hit them, that's all there is to it."
The other is how effective and comfortable he looked in five wides, a formation not always suited to NFL teams searching for consistency to protect the passer because it allows only five blockers. But Burrow seems to like it and there were plays in it that were there but they didn't finish.
They did use it four times in that last drive and picked up at least seven yards.
"Sometimes it will be in, sometimes it won't," Burrow said. "It depends on defensive personnel, injuries that we have. Could also be affected by injuries on other parts of the team or if we have to call a guy up and maybe put another guy down. Just depends on the week. I guess we'll just have to see if it comes out on Thursday or not."
What will definitely come out Thursday is the first edition of what appears to be a long-running serial.