The kicker is it looks like rookie kicker Evan McPherson is going to join quarterback Joe Burrow, nose tackle D.J. Reader and other Bengals notables on the sidelines in Sunday's regular-season finale (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) in Cleveland as "The Battle of Ohio," turns into war games for Cincinnati's playoff run.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable, burdened by not knowing which players are going to be out there, sees a tight, low-scoring game lacking Burrow, Bengals running back Joe Mixon and Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, to name just a few.
Marisa Contipelli, the Cleveland-bred Bengals Team Reporter, thinks the Bengals still have enough momentum to drop a Cleveland team that's lost three straight as they savor their first three-game winning streak of the season.
Kelsey Conway, The Cincinnati Enquirer's Bengals reporter, believes Browns backup quarterback Case Keenum's experience carries the day while the ageless Cleveland contingent of Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot and ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi sees the Browns defense again standing up to the Bengals.
Let's go around The Table. As always, ladies, visitors and the alphabet first.
In the Brandon Allen vs. Case Keenum Bowl, it depends, of course, a lot on who is going to play. But if the Browns play some of their best defensive players, which there is every reason to believe a lot of them will play, I still think the Browns have an opportunity to win this game. They would like to go out on a high note and they're going to be home. They don't want to go out with only seven victories. They've got a lot of pride on this team. If you have players out there like Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, these guys can get after it. This is a very, very good Browns defense. With Joe Mixon and Joe Burrow sitting out, I believe the Browns can finish on a high note.
THE EDGE: I think Case gets an opportunity to throw a couple of touchdown passes and if Nick Chubb comes off the injured list, I think the Browns match up pretty well with the Bengals even though we really don't know who is playing. The Bengals are pretty COVID hit. BROWNS, 20-17
Given my roots, "The Battle of Ohio," is one of my favorite matchups on the calendar. But it certainly doesn't have the allure that we were all kind of expecting for week 18. Cincinnati has the hot hand and it's going to be interesting to see if they want to wipe out that sour taste from the 41-16 loss in week eight. On the other side, I kind of expect the Browns to come out firing, not wanting to end a disappointing season with a loss.
With Joe Mixon not expected to play, I'm intrigued with the rest of the Bengals running backs, Chris Evans, Samaje Perine, Trayveon Williams, and how that plays out. Just giving the rookie Evans a little more experience is interesting because we know what he's capable of. We saw that against Detroit when he scored his first NFL touchdown. I expect a heavy dose of the running backs even though backup quarterback Brandon Allen has proven he's more than capable of winning a game when he needs to. The other big question is if rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase plays and if he does if he'll break Chad Johnson's Bengals season record for yards.
THE EDGE: Even though it looks like Cincinnati is going to be sitting many starters, the Bengals have been hot and the Browns have not. BENGALS, 24-21
It looks like more starters are going to be playing for Cleveland than Cincinnati. Case Keenum has much more starting experience than Brandon does. Even if Ja'Marr Chase plays, it will probably be only for a couple of snaps, like preseason football. With the volume of players on the COVID reserve list, I think you would have more of an excuse to sit all the starters.
THE EDGE: Without Burrow and Mixon, the Bengals don't have very much firepower. BROWNS, 21-13
The Browns intend to play anyone who is able to play. They aren't just going to sit guys just to take the day off. There are some guys with injuries and don't know how that's going to work itself out. Particularly at running back. Nick Chubb got a rib injury in the last game. Kareem Hunt hasn't played for a few weeks with an ankle injury and D'Ernest Johnson is on the COVID list. So there are going to be holes in their lineup. But because their defense is going to be fairly intact, I think the Browns are going to play this game to win and the regulars to do themselves proud. I don't see them cashing in on the season and regarding this as an exhibition game. I think they do want to win and I think they've got enough players to do that.
Surprisingly, Myles Garrett wasn't on the injury report even though he's had a groin injury since the Raiders game three weeks ago. He always wants to collect sacks. They've got their linebackers. They could be short at safety with two injuries there, but they've still got an emerging safety who has played pretty well off the bench in M.J. Stewart, Jr. There shouldn't be any holes in their defense because of layoffs.
THE EDGE: I think 17 points is kind of like the limit for Case Keenum. He did that against Denver and I think their running system is strong enough to support him even if it's the fourth running back off the practice squad. I see it as a defensive game they win that way and playing hard. BROWNS, 17-14
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Bengals have hosted three playoff games on Jan. 9 and this is decidedly not one as they go on the road to tune for their first playoff game since Jan. 9, 2016. The Bengals won their biggest game since that night last week and won the right to turn Sunday into "The Bye of Ohio."
Don't get it twisted. The Bengals are going to try and finish 11-6. They won't be trying to run out the clock. But with Burrow not playing you have to figure not many of the starters are playing, either. If Chase plays, he better get the dozen yards to break the Bengals season receiving record on the first series.
So they'll probably be trying to win with Allen throwing to special teams ace Stanley Morgan, Jr., and maybe backup left tackle Fred Johnson blocking 15-sacker Myles Garrett and possibly little-used linebackers Clay Johnston, Austin Calitro and Keandre Jones (a combined three scrimmage snaps this season) looking to stop the NFL's No. 4 running attack.
With four of Saturday's eight practice squad elevations on defense, look for even more backups to get the nod. After three seasons on the practice squad and getting into eight games, could safety Trayvon Henderson make his first NFL start while defensive tackle Mike Daniels makes his 86th?
It looks to be a great shot for the Bengals young offensive linemen. They could start three rookies in the interior. With left guard Quinton Spain both banged up and on the COVID list, Jackson Carman probably gets his first NFL start at left guard. With center Trey Hopkins on the COVID list, Trey Hill gets his third NFL start. Even if Hakeem Adeniji starts at right guard, rookie D'Ante Smith figures to get plenty of snaps in his third NFL game.
Right tackle Isaiah Prince could be the only starting offensive lineman that plays significant snaps. With Riley Reiff out for the year, they may be trying to get some more snaps for Prince before the postseason.
One thing seems certain. Rookie defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin, a fourth-round pick, figures to get plenty of snaps in his third NFL game.
What also seems to be looming is McPherson is going to rest his injured groin and fall a field goal shy of breaking Mike Nugent's 10-year-old Bengals scoring record of 132 points. Elliott Fry, on his eighth team, was elevated from the practice squad and looks like he's going to kick in his third NFL game two weeks after making three of four field goals for the Chiefs.
Standing in for Harrison Butker when he was on the COVID list, Fry hit from 44, 34 and 40 yards and missed wide left from 39. He was also three of four on PATs with a miss left.
Don't go anywhere. As the Bengals try to give their young backs and young linemen some work while protecting Allen, this could be a game in under three hours if they get the run game rolling.