Sunday 6pm preview: Who prevails in the AFC North – the banged-up Browns or the bruised Bengals?

It’s time for a BOO! Nope, that’s not a ghost still hanging around from Hallowe’en, it’s the latest instalment of the ‘Battle Of Ohio’. Sky viewers catching the early game will see the two teams founded by legendary coach and GM Paul Brown face off for a 96th time, with bragging rights in the Buckeye State at stake. The Bengals are slightly ahead in the all-time series (51-44) but the Browns have the edge of late, emerging victorious in close 37-34 and 35-30 games last season.

Someone’s gotta bounce back

After a three-game road trip, the Bengals are finally back on home turf as they start a run of six home games in the next eight. They’ll be licking their wounds after getting outcoached and outplayed in a 34-31 loss to the lowly New York Jets, with back-up QB Mike White totally dominating proceedings. Despite the unexpected loss to a 1-7 team, the 5-3 Bengals have clearly taken a step forward after six wins across their previous two seasons and currently occupy the 5th seed in the conference.

Meanwhile, Cleveland have had a disappointing start to what many thought might be a tilt at the Super Bowl. And yet, despite propping up the division at 4-4, they’re only one win behind the pace-setting Ravens. Their cause wasn’t helped by losing 15-10 at home to another divisional rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, last Sunday. After a week with Case Keenum standing in, Baker Mayfield stepped back into the ring but couldn’t impose himself on the game. The error-filled loss leaves the Browns outside the AFC playoff picture looking in.

Both these talented teams have legitimate playoff aspirations, and neither can afford to lose two straight in this incredibly competitive division. But they both have their flaws: Cincinnati’s inconsistency and the Browns’ lack of offensive cohesion. Neither team’s Week 8 performance inspires confidence so I think this will be a case of who bounces back the best.

Can Cincy master the sackmeister?

So far this season, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow has thrown for 2,215 yards, 20 TDs and nine INTs. He has at least two TD passes in every game this season, and is just 97 passing yards shy of 5,000 in his career to date. In short, the second-year QB is playing as well as could have been expected after his season-ending knee injury last season.

In the backfield, Joe Mixon (572 yards, 5 TDs) is the league’s #4 running back while the receiver corps (Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and would-be Rookie of the Year Ja’Marr Chase) are proving to be a formidable unit. Chase in particular is a serious threat (786 yards, 7 TDs) with a knack of linking up with his former LSU teammate for chunk plays, and even tight end CJ Uzomah has weighed in with five TDs.

However, with 20 sacks, Burrow isn’t getting enough pass protection, and there’s a risk the Cleveland defence will feast. Myles Garrett is living up to his billing as Defensive Player of the Year in waiting, leading the league with 10.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Along with the likes of Jadeveon Clowney, he forms part of a pass rush unit that is ranked #3 in the NFL and guaranteed to make more mischief on Sunday evening.

The Cleveland D ranks 13th in the league for points allowed per game (22.5) yet they are banged up for this one. DT Jack Conklin joined the injury list this week, standout rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is out on IR and John Johnson is listed as day-to-day.

Browns in a rush to grab the win

Switching the field, Cleveland’s passing attack is looking pretty anaemic at the moment. Baker Mayfield has only thrown for 1,699 yards (#25 in the league) and 6 TDs (#26), and their top receiver isn’t Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr. or even Donovan Peoples-Jones, but TE David Njoku (323 yards, 1 TD).

After Odell Beckham Snr. posted a video on social media on Tuesday, in which he highlighted the times when Baker didn’t throw the ball to his son when he was open, the rift between the two players has reached Grand Canyon proportions. With OBJ now set to be released from the team altogether, that leaves his QB – still struggling to overcome a torn labrum – with even fewer weapons to work with (although to be fair, he only made one catch against Pittsburgh so won’t be missed that much). Baker doesn’t have the same offensive riches as his opposite number, nor does he seem to have the same chemistry. Their pass protection also leaves a lot to be desired, with 23 sacks allowed (T26th in the league), so Cincy’s Trey Hendrickson will be looking to add to his growing tally of 7.5 sacks.

However, despite injuries to Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, Cleveland does still possess the league’s #1 rushing offence with 1,289 yards (161 yards per game). Chubb only mustered 61 yards on his return last week but expect him to have a bigger role this weekend, backed by D’Ernest Johnson as Hunt’s replacement. Their solid offensive line is also key in the team outrushing their opponents by 76 yards per game (again #1 in the league).

Facing them, the Cincinnati defence has been one of the unexpected success stories of the year so far, and were a top-five unit before the Jets stuck 511 total yards and 34 points on them. Until then, Cincinnati were the only team not to ship more than 25 points in a game this season.

Their terrible attempts at tackling against Gang Green can’t be repeated on Sunday, and Cincy fans will be looking for Logan Wilson, Chidobe Awuzie, Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell to make up for last week’s lacklustre effort. It’s alao a ‘revenge’ game for former Cleveland DT Larry Ogunjobi.

Prediction

The Bengals get the standard 3-point edge with the bookies for home field advantage but the score may be even closer than that. And despite Cincy scoring 30+ points in their last three games (they could tie the franchise record if they do it again this weekend), the over/under of 46 seems pretty spot on too, as the Browns haven’t exceeded 17 in that period. With that in mind, I’d be tempted to err towards the under – this one doesn’t feel like it’s going to match the 65–70 points we saw last year, especially with the Browns’ misfiring air attack.

In one of the week’s most intriguing match-ups, I’m expecting a close, tense, defensive battle, possibly decided by a moment of madness or a flash of inspiration. As it’s at Paul Brown Stadium, I’m going to predict that Cincinnati registers their third divisional win of the season… but only just.

Cincinnati 21, Cleveland 20

Featured image: Jamie Sabau – Getty Images

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