The last time the Bengals took a No. 1 quarterback on the road to play another No. 1 quarterback, Carson Palmer teed it up against Peyton Manning, the lock first-ballot Hall-of-Famer on the ballot released Wednesday.
Rookie Joe Burrow gets Cleveland's Baker Mayfield Thursday (8:20 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12 and NFL Network) and with Mayfield in a stretch of 10 interceptions in his last seven games that includes a hat trick in last year's finale in Cincinnati, the Bengals.com Media Roundtable gives the Bengals an even shot to win. No one has the margin bigger than a touchdown as the Bengals seek their first win under Zac Taylor in a one-touchdown game.
Tony Grossi, the long-time Cleveland scribe now doling out nuggets as Browns and NFL analyst for http://TheLandOnDemand.com, 850 ESPN Cleveland and FOX Sports Ohio, sees the Browns prevailing simply because they have to after the 38-6 meltdown in Baltimore. Nationally, Jarrett Bell of USA Today believes the time is ripe for the Bengals because their running game has worked so well historically against the Browns.
Locally, there is also a split. Tyler Dragon, The Cincinnati Enquirer beat reporter, thinks the Bengals have a hard time overcoming the Browns' overall talent combined with their desperation. Jay Morrison of The Athletic gives a two-point game to the Bengals because he sees the Browns having a hard time bouncing back so quickly from Sunday's drubbing and doubts their limping secondary is up to containing Burrow.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and the alphabet first.
The history of Bengals running backs against Cleveland is pretty impressive. I'm expecting a big game from Joe Mixon and he's obviously the key to Burrow being the best he can be as a rookie breaking into this thing.
Cleveland has talent, but it also has a tendency to make a lot of mistakes with Baker Mayfield and his pick problems. The other thing that plays into Cincinnati having a chance is the fact Cleveland's secondary is so decimated by injuries right now. And you saw Baltimore take advantage of that. It was a good sign to see Bengals wide receivers John Ross and A.J. Green get back in the flow again.
THE EDGE: Burrow had a chance to win it on Sunday. That's a great sign for them. I think they've got a good chance to go in there and win. BENGALS, 23-20
This is a much bigger game for the Browns than the Bengals. You can't let that kid come in here and beat them and go to 0-2. A ton of pressure on the Browns. This is a much bigger game two than it should be for the Browns. They laid such an egg in the opener in Baltimore. Not that the expectations were like last year, but the expectations certainly weren't that they'd have a bigger loss than the 30-pointer they had in last year's opener.
The natives are restless with quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. They need to score points and they need to be able to beat a team like Cincinnati to steady the ship. They don't have the chemistry and the pressure to get that fixed is growing. If they don't fix it, it is going to be a problem internally. They have to nip it in the bud. Everyone is fixated on it. The two receivers are paid more than any other pair in the league. They make $30 million in base. If you can't get the ball to one of your $15 million receivers, what's the point?
The Browns defensive line has three first-rounders and is the strength of their defense. After them, that's it. Myles Garrett was largely invisible against Baltimore, which was disappointing. The back seven is a weakness. The third linebacker is a mystery. The coordinator wanted to go with a three-safety look, but rookie Grant Delpit ruptured his Achilles. The top safeties are old and problematic. And they don't have two of their top three corners.
THE EDGE: The Browns have to win. The Bengals have a rookie quarterback in his first road start on a short week. All of those are advantages for the Browns. If you fumble those advantages … BROWNS, 24-20
The Bengals played the Browns well in last year's finale and if I were Zac Taylor I would use my workhorse running back in Joe Mixon. He had 308 yards in two games vs. the Browns last year, including a career-high 162. He clearly likes going up against the Browns and that will make Joe Burrow comfortable and get the offense going.
It will also help the play-action pass later on in the game. That will be critical because the Bengals did struggle throwing the ball downfield in week one. They averaged only 4.4 yards a play and part of that was Burrow being 0-for-5 on passes beyond 20 yards. We saw the pass to A.J. Green he misfired on. There was the other pass to John Ross and you can debate it was a little far or it went through Ross's hands, but essentially the Bengals struggled throwing the ball down field. I expect them to use the run game to help out the pass game.
The Browns have a bad taste in their mouth after what happened in Baltimore. They don't want to start the season 0-2 in the division. That could be a debilitating blow for their play-off aspirations. So I expect them to come out hungry and aggressive against a division opponent that many believe is inferior.
THE EDGE: The Browns secondary is not that great and the Bengals wide receivers are a strength. But overall, the Browns have more talent, they have the benefit of being at home and this game is more critical for the Browns. They can't go 0-2 in the division. BROWNS, 24-17
It's going to be low scoring, tight and not very pretty. I think the Bengals are going to find a way to win this game. They have a little more momentum, as bad and as disappointing as that loss was to the Chargers. I think they realize they have something real in Joe Burrow. Not that was ever a doubt, but the way he played down the stretch in that game and the way they used the offense with the five wides, I think they tapped into something there and something they'll be able to exploit against the Browns' very thin secondary.
I still think Cleveland has more talent, but the Browns are a little sore after that butt whipping in Baltimore. It just feels like these Bengals-Browns games are always close no matter who is favored. Usually the underdog springs an upset in one of the games and this one just feels like the Bengals are going to find a way to win a tight one.
I was surprised the way the Bengals used the two rookie linebackers on third downs in the opener. I thought it was a bit of a risk. It didn't blow up in their face, which I guess makes it a little bit of a win. I know they're not looking ahead to 2021, but that move kind of looks like they're looking to the future. The other takeaway from Sunday was how well they played in the two-minute with the five wides and just the poise that Joe Burrow showed after being roughed up in the first half. That's what he's known for. Bouncing back after getting knocked down. To do it in his first game without any preseason snaps was impressive.
THE EDGE: Randy Bullock at the gun in the ultimate redemption game. He kicks four field goals and they pull it out. I don't think the Bengals will be shy of using him. It feels like one of these grind-out games where they don't take as many chances on fourth-and-short and turn to Randy Bullock for the 40-45-yard kick. BENGALS, 19-17
THE BOTTOM LINE
Tell us now. Do the Bengals come out with the offensive line that protected Burrow so well in Sunday's last drive? Or will it be the line that came out and got Burrow bounced around in the first half until they got their sea legs?
And the line that gave Burrow that time will be intact with Billy Price getting the start at right guard after Xavier Su'a-Filo left with ankle injury early in the fourth quarter. Browns end Myles Garrett is an absolute beast and they can't let him do to Burrow what Joey Bosa did to him in that first half.
The Bengals have a bit of dilemma. The Browns are missing two of their top three cornerbacks and are aging at safety, which would seem to be a defense primed to be attacked by the five-wide set that took Burrow down the field in the last drive. But it's not an ideal formation if they're trying to help their tackles against an elite pass rusher or spring Joe Mixon in a running game that has been so successful against the Browns. Mixon has 408 career yards against the Browns, his most against any team.
New Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski has to turn to his own run game after his honeymoon blew up with six points in Baltimore. And quick. He can't afford to wait for Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr., to take couples counseling. Running back Nick Chubb is a stud, partner Kareem Hunt has a career rush average of 4.7 and with the Bengals depleted defensive tackles they may actually try it.
With Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels shelved, the Bengals are down to a guy they picked up in a trade the week before the season. And, Christian Covington played quite well (and a lot with 38 snaps) against the Chargers and they're glad they have him along with nose tackle. D.J. Reader.
But they're the last healthy pure tackles left, so when they get spelled they'll need some inspired play from Andrew Brown, a three-year vet who played basically end this camp until everybody got hurt, and Amani Bledsoe, a first-year end who made his NFL debut on Sunday.
But here's where the Bengals are hoping the free-agent moves they made over the offseason pay off. They signed Reader, middle linebacker Josh Bynes, strong safety Vonn Bell and slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander to toughen up against the run. They'll get their shot Thursday.
Everybody says it's going to be a tight game and yet here the kicking game is a huge question for both teams. The Browns cut their kicker and the Bengals claimed him after Randy Bullock missed Sunday's tying field when both calves apparently cramped.
The Bengals need to win a close game by field goal or anything else. Of the 15 losses under Zac Taylor, nine have come by eight points or less.