For the first time in 24 years Thursday night at Paul Brown Stadium, the 5-2-1 Bengals and the 5-3 Browns share prime time (8:25-Cincinnati's Channel 5 and NFL Network), but the Bengals.com Media Roundtable says they won't be sharing in the tightest AFC North ever with the Bengals getting a step ahead.
They better because, as Peter King points out, there are going to be 10-win teams in the AFC that don't make the playoffs. King, editor-in-chief of MMQB.com, isn't sure where the other five wins are coming from but he says the Bengals get No. 6 Thursday because the Browns aren't ready to beat a playoff caliber team on the road.
NFL Network reporter Steve Wyche also gives the Bengals the nod in what he sees as another tight one for the high-wire Browns because Cleveland just doesn't have enough gas on offense.
The Cincinnati Enquirer's Richard Skinner is calling for a Bengals blowout because their two multiple Pro Bowlers, wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins, stretch a Browns team that can't match up in other areas.
The lone dissenter is Tony Grossi of ESPNCleveland.com and it's an estimable one. While covering the Browns for three decades Grossi has chronicled more quarterbacks than profootballreference.com and he thinks Brian Hoyer is the real deal in terms of leading and winning. He calls Hoyer "a little Brady, "and thinks he'll have enough in his makeup to fend off Andy Dalton and lead a Browns team riding veteran intangibles and coaching intelligence.
Let's go around The Table with visitors first.
You would think because running back Giovani Bernard has been hurt, you'd really be worried about the Bengals being able to run the ball. But Jeremy Hill's presence is extremely encouraging especially because of the tour de force game he had against Jacksonville. I look at Cincinnati right now as a team that has to help Andy Dalton with the running game. You just have to. I'm not saying Hill has to have 154 yards for them to win. But Cleveland has been surprisingly generous defensively against the run. What they absolutely have to do is keep pressure off Dalton and they have to be able to run the ball to win the game.
When I look at the Browns right now, I like what I see in Brian Hoyer. But I don't look at Hoyer and say to myself this is a guy that's going to have five 60-yard drives in this game and he's going to have a great game throwing the ball against you. I see more of a team that really has to rely on a running game that has been very inconsistent. They've gone three straight games without running for 70 yards. That's a huge factor coming into this game.
I like the Bengals on defense. They've been in and out this year, but I like them on defense overall. They can't let the Browns come alive running the ball. If the Browns can run and Hoyer has some third-and-threes, they'll have an easier time.
The division is so incredibly unpredictable right now. If Cleveland wins this game, then you've got three teams with three losses. Look at the schedule down the stretch. Even if Baltimore loses at New Orleans and they're 5-5, look at their last six games other than New Orleans. I look at it and say Baltimore can run the table. Tennessee. San Diego. Miami. Jacksonville. Houston. Cleveland.
It wouldn't remotely surprise me if you had four winning teams in the AFC North. If you look at Cleveland and they beat the Bengals, that means they need to win three out of their final six to be a winning team. They've got Atlanta, Carolina, Houston at home. It's eminently doable. But I do think the AFC Wild Card needs 11 wins. I think there could be a couple of 10-win teams in the AFC sitting at home.
With the Bengals having five of their last seven on the road, this is a hugely important game. They could be 6-2-1 and not have any guarantee for the playoffs and when you think about that, it's pretty difficult.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-17. I think Cincinnati is the better team and they ought to win this game. I think Cleveland is ready to play a good game. I don't think they're ready to go on the road and beat a playoff-caliber team. Not just because they lost at Jacksonville, but they really struggled with Tampa and had some struggles against Oakland. Mike Pettine has made tremendous progress. But there's a difference between progress and knocking the Cincinnati Bengals out of the playoffs.
It's going to be a tight game. Cleveland hasn't let anything get one-sided the way it's played out this year. If the Bengals offensive line can figure things out, they should be fine because they have to make plays throwing the ball. The Bengals should win because they just have too much offense,
The lack of run defense for both teams is surprising. Especially the way the Bengals have been and you look at the talent the Browns have up front. Maybe this is a game where Jeremy Hill or one of those guys gets loose, but I still think it comes down to explosive plays the way these teams play and knowing they have to get chunk yards. The Bengals have to hit wide receivers A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu with chunk plays to maybe open up some things on the ground with these guys. It's not a significant edge for Cincinnati, but it's an edge.
Cleveland is competitive. They're one of those teams you don't want to play because they're never going to relent. They're going to keep the game close. When you look at the rest of the division, I don't think they have quite enough playmakers to contend with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh right now. Baltimore with those three division losses has really put itself in a bad spot.
I think the Bengals have to get some guys healthy on defense, but I think they're at the top. But you don't want to play the Steelers right now. What they've got going is frightening with their receivers. With Cincinnati it's the same old thing. They're going to be good in the regular season, but should they get to the playoffs, are they going be that team? Now is their time.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 23-17. Short week. The offenses won't be anything exotic. There'll be a couple of trick plays. But the Browns junk up games. They really keep themselves in games.
The difference with the Browns going down there is the quarterback. They have a mentally tough quarterback who will overcome the adversity this game will present him. Road game. Short week. Prime time. I feel better with him going down there than any other quarterback I've seen in the expansion era in Cleveland. He just gets it done.
The big concern is their offensive line. They've struggled to compensate for the loss of Mack. Their running backs are much better than a year ago, but they've been stopped because teams are loading up the box on them. The receivers are unspectacular, but they make a ton of plays. You wonder how without wide receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron, but they're always open because of their scheme.
I think the defense is starting to get it. They've got good players. They were supposed to be the foundation, but the way the season started the offense outperformed the defense and the defense is catching up after they began the season against three Super Bowl quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, and Joe Flacco. They've got eight turnovers in the last three games and the thing about Hoyer is that he'll struggle, struggle, struggle, and then the defense makes a turnover and he'll go for the throat and get the touchdown.
There is a concern in the secondary. Browns cornerback Joe Haden performs better against the bigger receivers like A.J. Green rather than the smaller ones like Antonio Brown and he's had some good games against Green. But the other matchups aren't great for them. Their No. 1 pick, cornerback Justin Gilbert, has been a disappointment and they get concerned when Buster Skrine goes in the slot.
THE EDGE: Browns, 23-20. The Bengals are banged up and the Browns have something going. They're better than their individual players. They're creating a nice team mentality. That's the function of the quarterback. He's like a little Tom Brady. He gets them focused. They came back from 25 down in Tennessee to win the biggest road deficit ever and scored 24 straight against Pittsburgh before losing the opener.
I think the Bengals have a chance to roll Cleveland. They know there's a lot on the line. They know they have to win. Cleveland is a little nicked up with some key guys. Tight end Jordan Cameron is out with a concussion. Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins is going through a thigh and knee injury and is probably going to play, but they don't have a lot of weapons and as it is they're just having a hard time running the ball.
The way Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins has played the last two games, that tells me he is poised to have a really big game if the same issues occur in the center of that Cleveland line without Alex Mack. In the last three games they're averaging 1.8 yards per carry. That doesn't get it done at any level and I've got a feeling Geno has a really big game Thursday night.
The Bengals run game is in better shape than Cleveland's. I really thought what Jeremy Hill did against a team that had been pretty decent against the run showed just what he can do with the number of touches he gets. I think he's poised for another 100-yard-plus game. Having A.J. Green back on that field on Sunday is one of the reasons Hill had the big running game. He just changes the dynamic.
Even though the Bengals have struggled against the run, I just don't see Cleveland running the ball the way Geno has started to play and when you look at the individual matchups he has a chance to dominate and when he dominates it changes everything that they can do. You start to get Brian Hoyer in third-and-sevens and third-and-eights and you see good quarterbacks struggle. Cleveland coming in here offensively reminds me of what the Bengals went through up in Indianapolis. They just couldn't run the ball, got in bad down-and-distances, and really has no way to fight its way out because they don't have the weapons the Bengals had in Indy.
OK, Cleveland has to take their best corner, Joe Haden, and put him on A.J., and he's had great success against A.J. over the years. A.J.'s only caught 20 balls against him in three years and a couple of those were big plays. But he hasn't done a whole lot against Joe Haden. The thing is, if A.J.'s not on the field, then he takes out Sanu and it's a trickle down. Now Joe Haden has to go there, which frees up Sanu, which frees up the running game. The Bengals have a very advantageous matchup.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 31-10. I just think they know what is on the line. You hear one week at a time and all that, but if you look at the rest of schedule, they know what's coming. I think they know this is a game you know you better be 6-2-1 coming out and I'd be stunned if they don't dominate.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you think last week was a tractor pull against a Jacksonville team that beat Cleveland, you've seen nothing yet. The Bengals and Browns could turn Nirvana into an unmade bed. Nothing is easy, but they also make it hard on the other team because they're usually around at the end.
So it will make the end of this one pretty interesting to see how the survivor got there. It should be the Bengals even though they are the most injured of the two clubs. They're at home on a short week, plus their matchups in the respective running games should pan out.
In the last two weeks the Bengals had to survive frightful fourth-quarter turnovers to win while the Browns had to gut out it over struggling Oakland and Tampa Bay by a combined 15 points.
Yes, the Browns have come up with eight turnovers in the last three weeks but they did it against offenses ranked 30th, 31st and 32nd coming into this game. Like the Bengals, they're tied for 30th defending the run and nobody really knows why because the talent is supposed to be much better than that. The Browns don't have their fine defensive tackle in Phil Taylor, nose tackle Ahtya Rubin has struggled at various times, and they're fitting in with a new defensive quarterback in middle linebacker Karlos Dansby.
In the last three weeks the Browns haven't been able to stop the run or run it and you're not supposed to be able to win that way. The Bengals have to take advantage of the shocking discrepancy (the Browns have averaged 1.9 yards per running the ball in the three games since the loss of center Alex Mack) with a defense that has to take away Hoyer's innate ability to find the open man by making life miserable on third-and-long. The last time Geno Atkins was on Thursday night, it was heartbreak. Now a year and seven days later has to be all over struggling center Nick McDonald.
The Bengals loved what wide receiver Andrew Hawkins did for them as a specialty player with tremendous quickness that made him tough to cover in the slot. But his 5-7, 180-pound frame also scared them from using him on the outside much. We'll see if they were right.
With Pro Bowl receiver Josh Gordon suspended, Hawkins has been one of the Browns' primary guys on the outside and while he's leading the team in receiving, he's also leading a team desperate for a big play. Both Hawkins and wide receiver Miles Austin barely average 13 yards per catch for a combined three touchdowns. But with the Bengals missing their top slot cornerback and possibly being forced to put rookie Darqueze Dennard in there, the Browns may use Hawkins in the slot more than usual.
The Bengals hope they get more out of Dennard than the Browns have got out of Justin Gilbert, Dennard's fellow first-round cornerback. Cleveland thought Gilbert would be starting by now, but it looks like he's lost confidence and is only playing on the outside in passing downs
But the rookie who is going to have the biggest impact on Thursday is probably Bengals running back Jeremy Hill coming off a 154-yard day. The matchup is obvious with Cleveland's struggles against the run and the Browns have been dangerous against the pass. Edge rusher Paul Kruger has six sacks and safety Tashaun Gipson has six interceptions, three of them with Kruger hitting the quarterback.
With Bengals right tackle Andre Smith not expected to play, the Browns figure to test backup right tackle Marshall Newhouse with Kruger, but if Hill can be effective against a club that is allowing 4.8 per game on the ground that helps Andy Dalton more than anything.
The Browns have been salty on special teams, where they blocked a field goal and deflected a punt last week. Plus, their top-ranked kick cover team faces off against Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, the NFL kick and punt return leader. The Browns also have a top ten punt cover team, so the Bengals are going to be challenged to come up with the hidden yards that have rescued them at various times this season.
The Browns can talk about Hoyer being cool and steady, but he's got nothing on Dalton. Dalton overcame two hellacious turnovers the past two weeks to show mettle of his own. And on Thursday he's got the crowd. While Hoyer has been very good in the fourth quarter (91.8 passer rating), Dalton has been better at 97.9.