Welcome to NFL's version of Desperate Houselives Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when the 5-3 Bengals try to sweep the first half of their division games while dealing the 4-4 Browns serious damage by keeping them winless in the AFC North.
If Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski is calling his team "desperate" in this one, then the Bengals believe they desperately need to erase last week's fourth-quarter implosion against the Jets in their bid to go to 3-0 in the AFC North for the first time in six years and two days.
That's when Tyler Eifert caught three Andy Dalton touchdown passes against the Browns in a Thursday Nighter at PBS and Bengals-Browns is again national Sunday in front of CBS' top broadcasting crew as Tony Romo returns to the Paul, scene of his final series winning drive in a December game that kept the Cowboys in the 2012 playoff hunt.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable is desperately split on Bengals-Browns. Just as are two of the Table members who covered the Eifert game, Cleveland's distinguished long time duo of Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot and ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi. Cabot says the Browns rally around quarterback Baker Mayfield and Grossi says the Browns can't stop Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.
The Cincinnati contingent is also split. ESPN.com's Ben Baby predicts Burrow's air game carries the day while The Cincinnati Enquirer's Kelsey Conway gives it to the Browns' trenches on both sides of the ball.
Let's go around The Table. As always, ladies, visitors and the alphabet first.
This is going to be a game of emotion. The Browns have been through tremendous adversity this week regarding the Odell Beckham, Jr. saga. They can use it as a rallying cry and they can pull together and they can beat the Bengals in a game head coach Kevin Stefanski has said they're desperate to win and their lives depend on it. That's how much emphasis they are putting on this game. If they pull together like I've seen them do, they can win and play better than they have in weeks. They've scored 17, 14, 14 and ten points in four of their last five games. But if the Bengals aren't prepared for the emotion the Browns are probably going to bring, the Browns are going to take it to them on both sides of the ball.
The Browns are bringing their numerous amount of Pro Bowlers to Cincinnati. You still have Nick Chubb, you still have Jarvis Landry, Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward. Jadeveon Clowney. There are plenty of talented players on this team and they haven't really played up to their potential. But I think they are poised to bring it. They have leaders on this team like Jarvis Landry, Baker Mayfield that are going to step up and they'll probably speak up.
They know if they fall to 4-5 and let the Bengals go to 6-3, essentially they will have to claw their way back in the AFC North. This was a team that was supposed to contend for the Super Bowl and you can see the resolve in Baker's eyes. I think the receivers are going to want to show they're behind him and that they're an excellent receiving corps in their own right even without Odell Beckham Jr. Myles Garrett is one of those guys looking to step up in the biggest game of the year and I can see him going after Joe with a vengeance trying to rake the ball out of there.
THE EDGE: This is going to light a fire under the Browns. They're going to come out strong and try to salvage their season. BROWNS, 24-23
It's going to be a line of scrimmage game. Who controls it is going to win it and I think right now I'm giving that edge to the Browns. I'm anticipating the Bengals defense to give a better performance against the Browns than last week against the Jets. But I think Joe Burrow is going to get the similar kind of pressure he saw in Chicago in terms of how much they get after him and the Browns have that edge on that side of the line of scrimmage.
THE EDGE: I've been back and forth on this. I think they're ultimately going to split the series, but now I think the Browns are really, really hungry. Not that the Bengals aren't, but the Browns say they're desperate and I think they're going to come out and dominate. BROWNS, 21-17
The Browns are in a bad way having lost three of their last four with decreasing point totals and now a huge distraction with Odell Beckham Jr.'s incident where he threw the quarterback under the bus via his dad's Instagram. I termed it he not only threw him under the bus, he went back and forth over him with a steamroller. All of that combined makes it a tough task.
Almost exactly a year ago when Beckham was hurt against Cincinnati, there seemed to be a switch that was flipped in Baker's mind and he started playing the position a lot better. Can he do that again? Yes. But the difference is he's got a bum shoulder and he's been restricted in the things he likes to do. Throw on the run, bootlegging left and right. And last week they didn't sneak him on fourth-and-one twice because they didn't want to risk further injury to the shoulder.
Cleveland revamped its defense in the offseason. It was a real priority and they brought in a lot of good players. But here it is the eighth game of the year and they haven't been able to defeat a good quarterback or a good offense. They lost to Kansas City, the Chargers, the Cardinals and now they've got the Bengals, right up there with any of them in terms of offense. That's a question mark in my mind, too.
THE EDGE: I'm just not sure Baker can rally the troops in the physical shape he's in right now. And it wouldn't surprise me if he does falter in the first half and they fall behind, I'm looking for that quarterback hook in this game. BENGALS, 36-24
The matchup is based all around the run game, specifically Cleveland's. Cleveland is one of the best teams, if not the best team, running the ball. They run three tight ends more than anybody in the league and they're really efficient and they eat up the clock. The Bengals have one of the best run defenses on paper and that has to come to fruition Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Bengals have to do a good job maximizing their possessions because of how much Cleveland likes to control the ball. It comes down to if the Bengals stop their rushing attack and they can find a way to be dynamic through the air because when you look at Cleveland's passing situation it seems the game will be won or lost on Cleveland's side of the ball in the trenches.
THE EDGE: The Browns' strength actually matches up fairly well with the Bengals' strength and how they built this defense in terms of being able stop the run. And given what we've seen out of Cleveland's passing attack this year, I just don't know if it's going to be dynamic enough to push Cincinnati. BENGALS, 28-17
THE BOTTOM LINE
It's the eighth time in PBS history that two overall No. 1 quarterbacks meet as Burrow looks to avenge Mayfield's last-minute touchdown drive last year that blotted out his own two-minute comeback and gave the Browns a 37-34 thriller.
But don't kid yourself. It's an enormous rock-em-sock-em game for the defenses that are both ranked in the top 10 against the run. It's going to be decided by how much pressure the third-ranked Browns and their defensive ends Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney get on Burrow and if the Bengals No. 7 rush defense can play up to its stats and corral the NFL's top rushing offense.
Let's face it. This is a game the Bengals had in mind when they committed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to the defense in the past two free agency seasons. That's because every division game is what they had in mind.
In the previous two years the Bengals had allowed 153 yards per North game on 5.1 yards per carry. After wins in Pittsburgh and Baltimore this season, those numbers are 80 and 4.1 respectively. Granted, a small sample size, but headed in the right direction and what they need on Sunday.
With the reduced Mayfield nursing an injured non-throwing shoulder, look for the Browns to rely on the run even more to set up the bootlegs and rollouts that have tortured the Bengals ever since Mayfield arrived in 2018. Mayfield has the same 5-1 record Baltimore's Lamar Jackson has against the Bengals with a 111.1 passer rating, 15 points below his rating this year and 21 points below his career rating.
He's drilled 17 touchdown passes in the series off his array of play-action out-of-pocket throws, five the last time they met. One of the reasons the Bengals were in it until the end was how they handled the run game (82 yards on 22 carries), a month after they gave up 215 yards rushing in Cleveland. The Bengals need the same kind of effort Sunday against Chubb, one of the league's top backs, and never mind the injured Kareem Hunt isn't playing. They have worthy backs coming off the bench in Browns offensive line coach Bill Callahan's interchangeable zone schemes.
And the Bengals don't want a sleepy offense to get hot, like what happened in New York last week. The Browns haven't scored 20 points in a month.
One of Callahan's disciples, Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack, is looking for his own zone scheme to get running back Joe Mixon jolting. The only way they'll keep Garrett and Clowney off Burrow is with a consistent run game they haven't been able to scrape together against strong interior fronts like the Jets last week and the Bears in Chicago the second game of the season. Browns tackles Malik Jackson and Malik McDowell have been tough to move in the middle of a defense that's ranked third overall and is in the top five of just about every important pressure category.
After a year of tough sledding on short-yardage, the Bengals need a couple of confident conversions early against a big front that has given them problems in the past. They don't want to lose time of possession to a Cleveland offense that has a four-minute edge on them during the season.
And Mixon has saved his best for the Browns. His career-high 162 yards came in the win over Mayfield, his old college teammate, and he averages 93 yards per on 4.8 per carry in the series.
Check the run stats after it's over. Then check the scoreboard. In all likelihood, if everyone holds on to the ball, it's going to say the same thing.