The script is Shakespeare and if Sunday's Battle of Ohio (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at Paul Brown Stadium is to be a Bengals' victory or not to be a stunning loss to the win-starved Browns the hosts hope to keep playing like they did in the fourth quarter of last week's victory in Denver and find a way to close it out.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and his trusted lieutenant for seven seasons in Bengaldom, Browns head coach Hue Jackson, are each faced with a multitude of questions as Lewis tries to get the 4-6 Bengals back in the AFC Wild Card race in time for next week's Steeler invasion and Jackson bids to jump-start a rebuilding process out of a 1-28 pyre.
The critics taking part in this week's Bengals.com Media Roundtable see it as more Lombardi than Shakespeare and go with talent over the upset.
Let's go around The Table:
Katherine Terrell, Bengals beat reporter for ESPN.com
I think the Browns have improved. They've at least been in a lot of their games. But the Bengals are just too talented. They haven't lost to the Browns since 2014 and I just don't see them doing it now. Some starters coming back for the Browns are going to help and the Bengals have had their struggles, but I think talent wins out.
The Bengals are still in it and that's sill the goal. To reach the playoffs. It will take a monumental effort to get there. They get a lift coming back home after three straight on the road and the fact they won their last one probably gives them some confidence. And the way they did it. They've been talking about being closers and they finally closed out a game. Marvin said all that travel wasn't too hard on them because they get to travel nice, but it is hard mentally to be on the road that long. BENGALS, 21-10
Jim Owczarski, Bengals columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer
At the beginning of the year I thought the second game would be tougher than the first for the Bengals. I just figured the Browns would kind of jell with some of these younger guys and I think we've seen that the last six weeks. Up front Danny Shelton is back, Myles Garrett is back. The Bengals couldn't run the ball the first time. They're not going to be able to run the ball Sunday.
It will be a tough game for all the reasons they've been tough for the Bengals since Cleveland. The Browns may allow big plays here and there, but I just don't think the Bengals offense is going to explode like it has the last few years against the Browns. I think it's going to follow the same pattern. Some struggles in fits and spurts, but at the end the Browns are going to have their issues and the Bengals will make those one or two extra plays to get a needed victory. BENGALS, 23-16
Tony Grossi, Browns beat reporter for ESPN Cleveland
The Browns are just too young to win. And now with one win in their last 29 games, it's gone beyond talent and it's starting to taking on a little bit of psychological thing. They didn't have Garrett, Shelton, and wide receiver Corey Coleman when they played Cincinnati earlier in the season and that should help.
But the Bengals are better in spots, too, and Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer is still in a state where he's making mistakes that they can't overcome. Hue's got a team that's too young to quit, but look at the margin of losses in their last three games. They've lost to the Vikings by 17, to the Lions by 14, and last week they lost to the Jags by 12. BENGALS, 27-10
The Browns offense leads the NFL in 28 turnovers and Bengals WILL backer Vontaze Burfict caused a huge one in Denver last week.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Bengals have a history of winning this one going away. Head coach Marvin Lewis has faced the Browns 14 times in November and December and is 12-2, 12-1 when it is the second game of the season series. That only loss came courtesy of Lee Suggs and his 185 yards rushing in the 2003 season finale that closed Lewis' first season.
And against three different Browns coaches in the last four seasons, it hasn't been close with Cincinnati winning by an average of 33-8 while holding the Browns without a touchdown in two of the games.
But it's hard to see the Bengals racking up those numbers with this offense. Since they beat the Browns Oct. 1 in Cleveland, 31-7 on 350 yards, they haven't scored more than 24 points. Since a win over Buffalo the next week in which they had a season-high 388 yards, they've broken 300 yards just once and are averaging 231 yards.
And it is the run game that has fueled those routs against the Browns with 169 yards rushing in last year's 23-10 win on Dec. 11, 144 on Dec. 6, 2015 in the 37-3 win, 244 in the 30-0 win on Dec. 14, 2014, and 106 in the 41-20 win on Dec. 17, 2013.
The state of the Bengals' run game at the moment is historically bad. It is dead last in the league in yards per game and yards per rush and they managed just 86 yards rushing on 2.9 per against the Browns back on Oct. 1 even though Cleveland didn't have its best run stopper in Danny Shelton and best pass rusher in Myles Garrett and both are back on Sunday. The Bengals have broken 100 yards rushing just once, just barely more than two months ago in Green Bay on 110.
For a team that has weekly faced teams trying to run out the clock against them, Cleveland is more than solid against the run. They are giving up the fewest yards per rush in the league and can now flex its muscles against the offense with the NFL's worst rush average. With Garrett's hand in the ground with four sacks in five games on the other side of left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, the Bengals don't want to get into throwing 35 passes against these guys. The 25 against Denver last week is more like it.
More angst for Bengaldom is while the Browns can stop the run, it's not been a great number for the Bengals, ranked 27th against the rush. Since the first two keys to winning any game are running the ball and stopping the run, here we go.
So you've got to believe Hue is going to come in here and do everything humanely possible to run the ball and take the ball out of quarterback DeShone Kizer's hands. Kizer is at the forefront of an offense that has allowed an NFL-leading 28 turnovers and Jackson has been in this building when guys like tackle Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap have taken over pockets of games against guys like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning.
But taking a deeper dive, as they like to say, it's not that bad of a matchup for the Bengals. The Browns don't have Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, they are ranked just 23rd running the ball and while the Bengals have faced the fifth most plays in the league with 695, they are ranked 11th in yards per rush. Plus, middle linebacker Kevin Minter, whose forte is stopping the run, returns after missing four games with an elbow injury and that should put Vontaze Burfict nice and comfy back at WLL backer after his best game of the season.
And this should be one of those rare games the Bengals can overcome not running the ball. The Browns have allowed passers a 102.3 rating, third worst in the league featuring 20 touchdown passes for two per game.
The Browns have added a receiving threat they didn't have last time against the Bengals, last year's oft-injured first rounder Corey Coleman. The 5-11, 185-pound Coleman lines up all over the lot, but Kizer has been able to get it to him so he's only averaging 11.8 yards per his first 12 NFL catches.
The Bengals must prevail to home to stay in it. It's probably going to be more of grinder, not like the recent routs. Maybe more like their second-game wins over the Browns from 2007-2011, when they won all five games by an average of 18-12. Make it something like 21-10, and that could be it. It fits into how the Bengals defense and offense is playing right now.