Not exactly a 21st century Battle of Ohio shaping up on the Lakefront Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in a stark role reversal in the AFC North.
The Bengals, who have had a death grip on this series in the 20 seasons since Cleveland got back into the league, are trying to get momentum into next season's rehab while the Browns are still mathematically in the hunt trying to make one final playoff push.
So it promises to be more like one of those 20th century slugfests (cue Boomer Esiason handing it off to Ickey Woods) and the Bengals.com Media Roundtable agrees in an old-fashioned AFC Central Cincinnati-Cleveland split, two-to-two.
In honor of the battle for the heart of Ohio, The Table is populated by three former and current Bengals beat scribes for The Dayton Daily News, a newspaper that once covered both the Bengals and the Browns on a daily basis.
Before Jay Morrison of The Athletic covered his first Bengals-Brows game for The News in 2012, his father took his high school junior to his first Bengals-Browns game in that Thursday Nighter at Cleveland in 1983 when Brian Sipe's early touchdown pass to Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome held up for a 17-7 Browns' victory. But Morrison sees a one-point Bengals victory 36 years later. As a youth, Laurel Pfahler, the current Bengals scribe for The News, had a hard time scoring Browns tickets from her father and brothers, but she could have one of the best seats in the house Sunday for what she predicts is a John Ross-fueled Bengals victory.
Alex Marvez, the Sirius XM NFL Radio Talkmaster, cut his teeth in the game covering the Jeff Blake-Carl Pickens Bengals of the mid 1990s in Dayton. He has become such a giant in the league that Tony Grossi, the dean of the Browns scribes, requested Marvez join him on The Table.
Marvez picks the Browns, but wonders about the state of mind of a team picked to go so far that is now on the brink of elimination. Grossi, who covered his first Battle of Ohio in the last year rookie coaches went head-to-head in the series (1984 in a Sam Wyche-Marty Schottenheimer duel), can consult him on that score.
He has experienced the brittle psyche of this club up close. After quarterback Baker Mayfield walked out of a news conference a couple of weeks ago in response to a Grossi question, Mayfield's utterings have been emblazoned in Browns' lore with a "Jesus Tony," T-Shirt that had the buzz going at Grossi's TheLandondemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland. But despite all the exhausting drama up there, both Marvez and Grossi pick the Browns to win.
Let's go around The Table:
To me what is very interesting is how does this Cleveland team respond knowing that they are probably not going to make the playoffs. They seemingly had everything in front of them on paper as far as a favorable schedule set up and then they laid an egg in Pittsburgh. How does Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens get this team motivated to play for the rest of the season? So far Freddie Kitchens hasn't done much right in 2019 and I have serious doubts from what I'm hearing that he'll be returning in 2020, so this game will be interesting in that regard. I also note that Cincinnati has not lost three straight games to Cleveland since 2000-01, so the Bengals have remained resilient at times when facing them.
Clearly it's a better Bengals team than the last time we spoke when they headed out to play Oakland. I think the return of Andy Dalton has meant something. It has stabilized the offense and given this team a chance to win. Carlos Dunlap finding the Fountain of Youth last week was a positive development as well and things are settling down.
It's still a pretty darn good Cleveland team in terms of talent and unlike the Jets I don't think they'll forget to run the football against the NFL's worst run defense. Browns running back Nick Chubb is the best running back we don't talk about and he's got 1,175 yards this season leading the league. I get the feeling that the Browns will try to get back to basics a little bit. Run the ball and I just think it's going to be a little tough for Cincinnati to overcome that.
THE EDGE: The Bengals run defense against the Browns run offense is a tough deal for Cincinnati. BROWNS, 20-17.
The Browns still have a lot to play for even though their playoff chances are small and I think that's enough to motivate them to not have any kind of a letdown after the low point of their season last week. The one obvious matchup is their run game against Cincinnati's run defense and if the Browns don't lose sight of that advantage they should have a comfortable win.
Baker suffered a bruise on top of his throwing hand when he followed through last week and hit Bud Dupree's face mask. On Thursday he threw without a glove and only had a compressed wrap on it and they said he did everything. We'll see how that plays out, but they still have the run game.
How their minds are is a good question after last week. That's going to dictate whether they finish the season better than .500. I know their fan base is devastated by the loss in Pittsburgh after losing a 10-0 lead. It's not that the team wasn't devastated, but I don't think they were hurt as much by that game as much as the fan base. It's still important for them to finish above .500 and that is still within their grasp.
I don't have a stake in the shirt, but I do have one for posterity sake. Fortunately I didn't have to pay for it. I was surprised how quickly (the Mayfield incident) escalated on his part. He was frustrated with the way the season was going. I asked a question about a lack of urgency in a two-minute drive against New England. I followed up kind of aggressively and he didn't like it and escalated into something I never thought it would. I'm sure I've had another walk-off in 30 some years, but not in a while.
THE EDGE: The Browns still have a lot of talent and enough to play for to let that talent prevail. BROWNS, 24-14.
Before I get into specifics, I have a stat. In the Super Bowl era, every team that has started 0-10, when they get their first win and go on the road the following week, they lose. 0-9. No team has ever got their first win after an 0-10 start and gone on the road to win their second in a row.
I think the Bengals have something going with their run game. I think they've got something going with their defense. I think Cleveland is kind of a mess. I think there's a big question with Baker. I think he'll play, but clearly he won't be himself. He's struggled when he's been healthy. I just think everything lines up for the Bengals to make this a close game.
I think it's going to be one of those old-fashioned AFC North December games where the run games are going to kind of dictate it and that's scary for the Bengals because we know about their run defense. The Browns have two really good running backs, but they run it up the middle a lot. The last team that did that against the Bengals was Seattle. Everybody else is trying to attack them on the edge. Seattle is the only one that really tried to run it down their throats and the Bengals stood up to that. If that's the tact the Browns take I think the Bengals can hold them in check and keep it a low-scoring game.
THE EDGE: The Browns' playoff hopes are hanging by a thread and if it goes bad early you know what Cleveland fans are, they could turn on them. I think the Bengals have some momentum with that win last week with Andy coming back especially. Now John Ross coming back will be a big boost for a passing game that's had no vertical threat all year. I think everything kind of points to the Bengals. BENGALS, 17-16
The Bengals have some momentum. Baker might not be fully healthy and he's struggled turning it over as it is. This might be a chance for the Bengals to get some of those turnovers they've been talking about. They should also be helped by the return of John Ross and, like Bengals running back Joe Mixon was saying this week, that helps the running game because Cleveland can't stack the box against him knowing they have to account for Ross' speed. Even if he doesn't play a lot of snaps, Ross will still be a factor.
The Browns just haven't done what people thought they would with the weapons they have. I think they could be doing a lot more with wide receivers Odell Beckham, Jr., and Jarvis Landry. Nick Chubb has really stepped up and led their running game and a lot of the running yards the Bengals have given up have been against really good quarterbacks, so I think this is the best test they're going to face as far as a good running back. But they're doing better against the run and it just seems like they're on the upswing right now.
THE EDGE: The Bengals have the momentum. I've got my dad's Browns' negativity in my head, too. BENGALS, 21-13
THE BOTTOM LINE
This thing is all about the Bengals stopping the Browns running backs, NFL leading rusher Nick Chubb and versatile Kareem Hunt. Cincy lost the one guy it couldn't lose on Friday when right end Sam Hubbard (knee) was ruled out. The Bengals have been much better against the run the past few weeks because their five D-lineman package has been good on first and second down. Now without Hubbard, there's a question if they can even use it.
Hubbard's backup, Carl Lawson, is primarily a pass rusher, so we'll see what comes out of defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's bag of tricks on the early downs. And Anarumo has been terrific lately drawing it up in the dirt, as left end Carlos Dunlap says. By the way, Anarumo's line about five-star guys needing to play like five-star guys really applies Sunday to Dunlap and Geno Atkins up front without Hubbard.
The Browns offensive line hasn't exactly been bowling people over. The tackles, Greg Robinson on the left and Chris Hubbard on the right, have combined to allow 51 pressures and are ranked 50th or below on the run, according to profootballfocus.com, while their line is tied for 20th when it comes to allowing sacks per pass. That's the matchup that matters and let's see if Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens spreads out the Bengals with Hubbard out and challenge them on the edge like people did earlier in the season.
On offense for the Bengals the return of John Ross is huge, dovetailing nicely with the absence of Browns leading sacker Myles Garrett. Just getting Ross to line up 20 to 25 times at wide receiver should loosen things up in the box. The Browns' numbers are better stopping the pass than the run and cornerback Denzel Ward is a nice player. But multiple receivers can test rookie cornerback Greedy Williams and they'd like to keep the ball out of the middle, where Pro Bowl MIKE Joe Schobert is coming off a month he led the NFL with four interceptions and became the first backer in 14 years to have at least two picks in back-to-back games. Talk about a game Zac Taylor needs to get his play-action going. And the Browns are 26th stopping yards per rush.
You wonder about the loss of Brandon Wilson to the Bengals special teams unit ranked No. 1. Not only was he leading the league in kick returns, but he led them in special teams tackles with six and two of the Browns' most reliable players have been rookie punter Jamie Gillan (one fewer punts inside the 20 than the Bengals' red-hot Kevin Huber) and rookie kicker Austin Seibert with just three misses on field goals.
But this also seems to be a game of minds, too. The Browns are coming off an exhausting stretch with the Steelers that led to them being ridiculed nationally after the first game against Pittsburgh and then virtually knocked them out of the playoffs after the loss last week in Pittsburgh in the second game. Where are they mentally? And this is where one of Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham's big keys of the game comes in. The Browns have the most penalty yards in the league, the Bengals the fewest.
This may not be a game that figures on paper, but in the head.