The Cleveland Browns are playing relevant football games in the second half of the season. There is no punch line to that statement. Their game plan should be as simple as that statement: forever change the culture in Cleveland football.
If it sounds like I am putting too much emphasis on their matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals, then you have not been watching Browns football since 1999. If this sounds similar to the emphasis I put on the matchup with the Baltimore Ravens two weeks ago, then you have definitely been reading my articles.
The fact of the matter is that the Browns have been awful.
They have been the AFC North doormat for so long that it is hard to remember what it’s like to be taken seriously. Those years of bad football are not erased with one win, one playoff berth or even one season. They can only be repaired with consistency over time.
While the win over the Ravens was exciting and propelled the Browns into a realistic competition for the division title, it also added pressure that this roster has never felt before. The players need to rise to the occasion.
A loss to the Bengals does not kill their playoff chances. However, a win in Cincinnati, where the Bengals are 4-0 this season, might change the way the entire league looks at Cleveland.
Sunday is about taking the next step. A win gives the Bengals the same amount of losses as the Browns and locks up the tiebreaker for Cleveland. A win puts pressure on Cincinnati to stay on top of the division by winning every week.
A win allows the Browns to control their own destiny for the AFC North crown.
The Competitive Edge
Andy Dalton has been bad over the last two weeks.
He has thrown six interceptions, and the questions surrounding his ceiling are starting to gain momentum. Yet I still remain firm in the belief that Dalton is a good quarterback who can win a Super Bowl.
Browns quarterback Jason Campbell, on the other hand, has been superb. He has no turnovers in his two starts.
The Bengals have the edge in this category, but just by a nose.
The Browns' main worry for Sunday should be that the game does not turn into the Giovani Bernard show. He is that good. In his last five games, he has 385 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns. Last week against Baltimore, he had 22 touches, which is the most he has gotten all season.
He will be a huge part of the Bengals’ game plan this Sunday.
This is as good a battle as you will find at the wide receiver position. A.J. Green is averaging 6.5 catches, 101 yards and 0.6 touchdowns per game for the Bengals. Josh Gordon is averaging five catches, 89 yards and 0.4 touchdowns per game for the Browns. Gordon is fourth in the league at 17.9 yards per reception while A.J. Green is 19th at 15.6 yards per reception.
When the Browns' supporting cast is playing well, their wideouts are slightly better than the Bengals', which evens this category out.
Even though Jordan Cameron has been in a little bit of a slump, he is still one of the best in business. He has just five catches over the last two weeks with no touchdowns and he's still ranked third in the NFL in tight end receiving yards.
The Browns' offensive line is playing at an extremely high level, and now they have additional depth. Guard Jason Pinkston has been activated from injured reserve and will back up Shawn Lauvao and John Greco. Over the last four games, the Browns have allowed just eight sacks. If they held opponents to two sacks per game all season they would be tied for the fifth-best pass-blocking offensive line in the NFL.
The injury to Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins is devastating. Both teams can gloss over it and say the backups will do just as well, but the reality is that Cincinnati lost a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive lineman for the season.
The Browns, on the other hand, are fifth in the NFL in sacks and sixth in rushing yards allowed per game. The defensive line has a ton to do with both of those statistics.
When both teams are healthy, this is a very even matchup. Unfortunately for the Bengals, Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict are injured and may not be able to play Sunday. Even with the Browns losing outside linebacker Quentin Groves for the season with an ankle injury, they are still deeper and more talented right now.
The entire Browns defensive unit has been playing at such a high level that it's easy to forget how dominant cornerbacks Joe Haden and Buster Skrine have been. Behind them, safety T.J. Ward is playing at a Pro Bowl level and continues to make a push towards a giant payday in his contract year.
Both teams are almost identical in what they average and what they allow on special teams. The kicking game has been surprisingly strong for Cleveland. Billy Cundiff has surpassed all expectations. The Browns may have a slight edge in the punting department with Spencer Lanning, who is turning out to be one heck of a punter.
All in all, the entire category is a deadlock.
Browns Offense vs. Bengals Defense
The Browns offense is averaging a touchdown more per game when they win. In victories this season, they are averaging 25 points, while in losses they are averaging just 18.
The Browns will need to score more than 18 points Sunday if they want to win on the road.
It is highly unlikely that the Browns will hold Cincinnati to six points like they did in their first matchup. The Bengals are prone to giving up big plays on the ground, and the Browns need to exploit that.
Running Willis McGahee into the back of his offensive line 25 times won’t get it done, but being creative and getting other players involved in the running game will.
In the passing game, the Bengals do not allow a lot of big plays over the top. Jason Campbell will need to stay patient and wait for his opportunity. Brian Hoyer, who started for the Browns in the first matchup, exemplified a perfect game plan: Take the opportunities that are in front of you and don’t be afraid to punt.
If the Browns stay patient and get creative on the ground, they should be able to put up a few touchdowns on the Bengals.
Browns Defense vs. Bengals Offense
The Bengals offense has been Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this season. That is mostly because of Andy Dalton.
When they won six out of seven games and took a commanding lead in the AFC North, he played like a Pro Bowl quarterback. When they lost their last two games, he played like a bum and made terrible decisions.
Dalton is a quarterback who feasts off of play-action passes, so Cincinnati will try to establish the run. If the Browns can limit the Bengals' run game, which they have done pretty much all season, then Dalton will be forced to throw more than they would like.
This is where the Browns can win the football game. If they can get Dalton into 3rd-and-long situations and force some turnovers, the Browns should be able to escape Cincinnati with a victory.
If the Browns cannot stop the run, then that opens up passes for A.J. Green over the top. It doesn’t matter how good Joe Haden is in coverage—if he has to worry about the run game, sooner or later Green will beat him.
It doesn’t look like the weather will be too bad this weekend in Cincinnati. In fact, a projection of 65 degrees and a slight rain should not affect the kicking game whatsoever.
Both teams are good but not great in the return game. Once the Browns lost Travis Benjamin for the season, they were lowered back into the mediocre category.
With the extra week to prepare, I would not be surprised if the Browns have a trick or two up their sleeves on special teams. They used a few against Minnesota on the road to get their first win of the season. They might benefit from reaching into the bag of tricks again.
What They’re Saying
“It’s something that we want to do. Again, this is a time where we need to do that and want to do that, playing and going into a tough place.
“We talked last time we were together, I think it was on Monday, about the focus that’s needed on the road, the fact that the whole team has to play and play well together on the road. You don’t have a lot of fans so you have to generate your own energy. Those are the things that we need to try to do this weekend.”
—Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski about winning on the road being the next step in their growth.
“It’s a big game not just for [the Browns]; it’s a big game for us too. There is a lot that’s going into this game. It’s a division game. We’ve got to be at our best. We know that they will be at their best. They’re playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
—Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton on how big the game is for the Browns.
Browns’ Wednesday Injury Report
Did not participate: Tight end MarQueis Gray (Hamstring)
MarQueis Gray's absence doesn't hurt the Browns' run game, but it also does not help. Gray is the Browns' Wildcat quarterback, and he could help take strain off of running back Willis McGahee. If he could add three or four carries per game, then the Browns' run game might not be as awful as it has been.
Full Participation: Quarterback Jason Campbell (Ribs), outside linebacker Paul Kruger (Finger), running back Willis McGahee (Knee), running back Chris Ogbonnaya (Ribs) and cornerback Chris Owens (Finger).
All of these players should be fine for Sunday. Campbell said, "I feel good, feel fine" Wednesday, via Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. This is no surprise; Campbell returned to the game two weeks ago after missing one series.
Chris Ogbonnaya was hurting the last month but is finally healthy. That will be a nice boost to the run game.
This Week’s Game Stats and Facts
With a 4-5 record, the Browns are off to their best start through nine games since 2007, when the team opened 5-4.
The Browns and Houston are the only teams to not allow a 100-yard rusher or a 300-yard passer in a game so far.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Jason Campbell is the first Browns quarterback to record a rating of 100-plus in his first two starts with the team during the Super Bowl era (1966-2013).
Cleveland has had a sack by 15 players this season, the second-most in the NFL.
All quotes and observations obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Game stats and facts are courtesy of the Browns’ and Bengals’ communications departments.