After seven losses by seven points or fewer and just off last week's overtime drainer in Miami, the Bengals are mad enough to burst. Depending on who you listen to, the Browns, after blowing a chance at the playoffs the last two weeks, are demoralized enough to bust. The two frustrated teams meet Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) at Paul Brown Stadium under the obligatory blanket cloud of a season finale.
For the Bengals, it hovers over the quarterback. For the Browns, it drapes over the head coach. For the Bengals.com Media Roundtable, the vision for 2020 is coming into sharper and sharper focus.
Veteran scribe John Fay, one of The Cincinnati Enquirer's beat men, goes back to the 1991 Battle of Ohio when Eric Thomas' blocked Matt Stover 34-yard field goal try at the gun from Riverfront Stadium. It gave the Bengals their first win of the season on Nov. 3 and their first win over Bill Belichick. He sees another historic day in what he believes is Andy Dalton's last game as the Bengals quarterback.
Dan Hoard, the Bengals radio voice, made his NFL debut on the same day Dalton made his in Cleveland. They both celebrated a win over the Browns, just as Hoard sees them doing again Sunday.
The Browns media contingent is represented by The Cleveland Plain-Dealer Throwback Duo of Mary Kay Cabot and Tony Grossi. Between the two of them they're about to combine for Browns' coverage in 10 decades, the bulk of them for a newspaper in transition. Like all of them.
Grossi, who now covers the Browns for The Land On Demand.com, thinks the Browns are in tatters emotionally after two tough playoff-ousting losses. Cabot, of Cleveland.com, believes the play of running back Nick Chubb and wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr, in pursuit of goals gets them that seventh win for the second straight season. Neither can make a call on the future of head coach Freddie Kitchens, which says a lot.
Let's go around The Table. As always, the order is ladies, visitors and the alphabet:
I think the Browns will try to rally and win this last game. I think they want to match their win total of last year with seven. I think that's important for them.
Consolation prizes for them are if wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. gets 46 yards, he can get 1,000 yards and I think that's very important to him and to the team. It's a milestone everyone would like him to reach. Quarterback Baker Mayfield says it's important to him for Odell to get. Now Odell is sick for this game. He came down with flu-like symptoms Friday, so I'm not sure he'll be able to play but I think he'll do everything he can to get on the field. And Nick Chubb is in line to win the rushing title and I talked to running back Kareem Hunt about that Friday and he thinks Nick deserves it. How cool it would be for two players on the same team to have won a rushing title.
They head into this game with head coach Freddie Kitchens on the hot seat. No one knows what's going to happen yet. There are rumblings he's going to get fired, but they're keeping it close to the vest. They haven't come out like the Falcons did and give Kitchens a vote of confidence. No one has said anything about it. That's one of the biggest things to watch in this game.
Defensively, they're so beat up and decimated. It's going to be hard. I think the Bengals are going to be very, very motivated. They almost won that game and should have won the game the first time around if they had done better in the red zone instead of going 1-for-5. Even just hearing Joe Mixon talk after that game, he said, "I can't wait to play them again." I think they have a lot of pride. They had a great game against the Dolphins and they want to come back and show they can beat the Browns and finish the season on a high note. I think they'll give them a really good game. And the Browns just don't seem to have it on defense anymore. They've given up 926 yards the last two games.
THE EDGE: Every week I look at the talent on this Cleveland Browns roster and I just keep thinking, "They're a good football team." I expect them to be one. So for those reasons I find it hard to believe they'll lose to a 1-14 team. But I could very well see the Bengals rising up and winning this game. BROWNS, 24-23.
In the last two weeks a lot of things had to happen for the Browns to stay in the play-off race and they all happened. Except the Browns failed to win. Their last two losses have knocked them out. If they had won they would have been holding an edge going into this final week. They're demoralized by that. The ultimate weight of these expectations finally crashed down on them.
Those were the two games after they beat the Bengals. Arizona and Baltimore. They were in the game in Baltimore. They were up 6-0 with two minutes to go in the first half and they completely botched it with the most unconscionable lack of game awareness in history. Baltimore had no timeouts and the Browns had the ball with a 6-0 lead with two minutes left in the first half and Baltimore scored two touchdowns without a turnover.
I don't know how the coaching thing is going to turn out. Anything can happen with this management. I could see him coming back. I could see him not coming back. I could see little change. I could see massive change. It's one of those weird years there's no predicting what these guys are going to do.
They've got a lot of injuries on defense. End Olivier Vernon has missed the last five games or so with a knee injury and they should have shut him down, but it sounds like he may play. I think Beckham will play unless he's throwing up.
THE EDGE: In the last Battle of Ohio in the pre-Joe Burrow Era, I think Andy Dalton is unchained and free and exploits a tired, overrated defense. The lack of a pass rush is going to benefit him. And if Zac Taylor uses Mixon inside the red zone, there'll be a different outcome than the last time. BENGALS, 27-23.
The Bengals played the Browns really well up there. I think the Bengals have more to play for than the Browns at this point. They want to go out on a good note. It's probably going to be Andy Dalton's last game. Teammates love him. I think they'll play hard. I don't think the Browns are that good. I thought the Bengals should have won up there. They probably do if they give the ball to Joe Mixon a few more times.
I thought they played really well against the Browns offense. The big question is if they can stop Chubb. They stopped Miami's running game, but they didn't have Chubb. That's a key factor. If they can stop him a little bit and force Mayfield to throw a lot, bad things sometimes happen when he does.
THE EDGE: I think Dalton has big last game. BENGALS, 24-21.
The Bengals are desperate to finish on a positive note. I think, as they demonstrated late last week, they're good enough to beat a team on the Browns' level. I don't think Cleveland is great. And I think the Browns are really ready for this season to be over with. When you have expectations that high that you don't live up to, I think when you reach Week 17 you're ready to call it a night.
I'm sure it's going to be running through Andy's mind. That drive to the stadium on Sunday, there's no question, in my mind at least, that Andy will be thinking this could be it. You take a little extra time looking at your surroundings and remembering all the good times. It may not be his last game. we'll see, but I think he'll be very conscious of that on Sunday and I would expect him to play well under those circumstances.
Two weeks ago the Bengals did a great job against Baker Mayfield and the Browns passing game. It's the first time they've ever held him to a lousy statistical game, so I'd like to think they could do it one more time.
THE EDGE: In what's been a really rough season, the Bengals have one last positive experience left in them. BENGALS, 21-17.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If there is something significant on the line in a season finale, you can be sure it pits Paul Brown's two teams in Cincinnati even though it's only happened three times in the last 30 years.
It's only the second time it's happened in the building named after Brown and 16 years after it proved to be the last Bengals game for all-time franchise rusher Corey Dillon while the Browns' spoiled the bid of Marvin Lewis' first team for a winning record.
Even before Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals' last winning season before that 2003 finale was secured in the 1990 finale at Riverfront Stadium, when Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason's 42-yard touchdown pass to running back Eric Ball in the fourth quarter on a wheel route gave them the AFC Central title in a 21-14 win over the Browns. It was also the last game for Cleveland's Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome. One catch for six yards.
Now in 2019 it looks for all the world like it is the last Bengals start for quarterback Andy Dalton, ending a nine-season run as the most prolific quarterback in Bengals history when it comes to five play-off appearances and 203 touchdown passes. (And, maybe, Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens.)
Fittingly, it seems, Dalton comes into this game with a winning percentage of .530, one percentage point ahead of Ken Anderson, the Bengals' winningest quarterback. A loss puts him at .526. A win puts him at .534 and gives him 70. It would make him the tenth quarterback with 70 wins in the decade, more than Cam Newton, Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford.
Dalton has a lot of respect in his locker room and you get the sense the fumes of last Sunday's marvelous final six minutes of regulation are going to be hanging around his offense. The sense is they're going to play well and they already have against Cleveland. Three weeks ago when the Browns were still in the playoff picture the Bengals went on the road and racked up 451 yards and got beat only because they scored one touchdown on five red-zone trips.
Remember, that's the game Mixon had a career-high 146 yards on 23 carries and you can be sure the Bengals are going to be reminded they handed it to him seven times on 18 snaps in the red zone.
Also remember how chippy it was and how the Browns were talking and how their loose, rambling style lured the Bengals into four 15-yard penalties in a game the Bengals entered with the NFL's fewest penalty yards. Mixon remembers how Browns cornerback Greedy Williams baited him into a head butt. That 15-yard penalty resulted in Dalton's pick-six on the next snap and vows that won't happen again. The Browns have a lot of talent and one of their talents is making themselves thoroughly unlikable, so we'll see how the emotions play out.
A lot of attention is on Dalton, but the X factor is Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. Last year he came in here and preened around PBS while he lit them up for four touchdowns and scalding 143.8 passer rating. The guy's dangerous when he's on, but the Bengals did an underrated job on his passing game up in Cleveland when he only completed 11 of 24 passes for just 192 yards while his prized receivers, Odell Beckham, Jr., and Jarvis Landry, had just 115 of those yards.
Beckham, who had just 39 yards on two catches and five targets, had those unbelievably great hands full against cornerback William Jackson III. According to profootballfocus.com, Jackson held him to one catch for 18 yards on four targets and had an interception covering him that was overturned because he was called for pass interference. But Jackson is now on injured reserve and second-year player Darius Phillips needs to have a big game.
Really, the Bengals defense did a great job overall job in Cleveland. Yes, NFL rushing leader Nick Chubb nicked them for seven yards per his 15 carries, but one of them was a 57-yard run that should have been stopped in the backfield. What Bengals defense shows up? The one that gave up just 333 yards in Cleveland and shut down Beckham and Landry? Or the one that last week gave Ryan Fitzpatrick 419 passing yards and allowed the Dolphins' bottom tier offense more than 500 yards? If that defense shows up, imagine how Mayfield will dance.
But with guys like Mixon and wide receiver Tyler Boyd within a few plays of 1,000 yards rushing and receiving, respectively, against a Cleveland defense that's allowed 926 yards the last two weeks, the Bengals also give Cleveland headaches. And that defensive effort in Miami was pretty much a blip on good second half of the season.
Paul Brown's two teams. Even though they're both out of it, we're in for something.