For the sixth time Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), Paul Brown Stadium plays host to a game started by two quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall when Bengals rookie Joe Burrow tries to even the score with Cleveland's Baker Mayfield.
The last time it happened on Dec. 6, 2009, both the Bengals' Carson Palmer (a 65 passer rating) and the Lions' Matthew Stafford (41.4) struggled as the game swung with Bengals defensive end Jonathan Fanene's 45-yard interception return in Cincinnati's 23-13 victory.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable sees a better game for the quarterbacks, although maybe not as impeccable as Nov. 20, 2005 when Palmer and the Colts' Peyton Manning combined to pass for 700 yards while both fired up triple-digit passer ratings in Indianapolis' 45-37 victory.
Long-time Browns beat scribe Tony Grossi, analyst for 850 ESPN Cleveland and Fox Sports Ohio, believes Mayfield gets out of Cincinnati with a win to douse some of the scathing criticism. Grossi won't be here, but that's a better outcome for the Browns than his first trip to Cincinnati in 1984, a horrific day for quarterbacks in the Bengals' 12-9 Riverfront Stadium victory that proved to be Grossi' first assignment in Cincinnati but Sam Rutigliano's last game as Browns head coach.
Mike Sando, The Athletic's quarterback connoisseur, sees Mayfield reaping the benefits of Cleveland's run game, but leaves an opening for a last-drive Burrow comeback.
Locally, Sports Illustrated's James Rapien, a former radio competitor of Grossi during his Cleveland days, thinks Mayfield takes advantage of the absence of injured starting cornerback William Jackson III to out-talent the Bengals in a tight win. With the loss of Jackson and Bengals running back Joe Mixon, ESPN's Ben Baby thinks the Browns win a game that looks a lot like the one Cleveland won last month.
Whatever happens, the game figures to have more points than the first PBS meeting of overall No. 1 quarterbacks on Nov. 7, 2004. The Bengals picked off Vinny Testaverde three times and the Cowboys turned it over five times as head coach Bill Parcells fumed while Palmer game-managed a 26-3 victory with matching 95s: his passer rating (94.8) and Rudi Johnson's yards rushing.
Let's go around The Table. As usual, visitors and the alphabet first.
Much like the first game there is tremendous pressure on Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield has been under siege nationally and locally for his performance the last five quarters. He didn't play in the fourth quarter last week against Pittsburgh, but in the second half of the Colts game and the Pittsburgh game he's had four interceptions that are responsible for ten points. The critics are getting loud.
Unlike the first game, the Browns running game has been weakened by running back Nick Chubb not in there and running back Kareem Hunt is playing through a groin injury that obviously affects him because he's going through periods he's out of the game. Their mauling right guard Wyatt Teller is out again. It puts more pressure on the quarterback to make some plays and he hasn't been making the plays.
The running game is still formidable, but they miss Chubb, don't kid yourself. Not only is he a great player, but having Chubb and Hunt together in the same game, sometimes in the same backfield, is unique. There's no other team that has that 1-2 punch. Hunt's a great player but it's not the same.
I give Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods a lot of credit. He has never had a full deck of cards because of injuries and they've done really well stopping the run and also takeaways. They had zero against Pittsburgh, but they were leading the league going into that game. The hallmark of the defense has been turnovers and it's really helped the sputtering passing game and the offense in the second half of games.
THE EDGE: Another difficult game for the Browns. They never put away the last game. Burrow kept coming back and they'll have to do that again. BROWNS, 31-28
I really like what the Browns have done with their offensive line and I think if they play on their script they can probably win the game. I like their plan, but if Cincinnati can get ahead like they did last week against the Colts, it's lights out because no way Baker Mayfield is throwing them back into the game like Philip Rivers did.
I kind of like the formula that Cleveland has. They sort of found one, which is a little unusual because they have a new coach. Maybe it's just because that identity he wants is so strong and they've been able to do that. I'm glad I don't have a lot of money on the game because the Bengals can certainly win. I know how the Browns want to win it and I feel like for the most part they've stuck to that.
THE EDGE: Give Burrow a chance for a late drive to pull it out. BROWNS, 27-24
I thought the score (35-30) didn't reflect how well Cleveland played in the first meeting. Cleveland took advantage of their inability to handle misdirection and those bootlegs. Cincy has responded to that, but I think the big question is going to be how Cincinnati is going to defend. The Browns don't have Nick Chubb but the Bengals don't have key pieces on the defensive line. It's good they have tackle Mike Daniels back, however I'd like to see what they can get out of Geno Atkins this time around and see if that makes a big difference and if they'll be able to stop the run.
It definitely hurts the Bengals not to have Joe Mixon. It's going to be interesting because Giovani Bernard hasn't had more than 10 carries in a game since the 2018 season. Can he have that kind of a workload and what are we going to see from the secondary back? Is it going to be Trayveon Williams? Is it going to be Samaje Perine? That's going to be a very fascinating deal. I'd like to see what the Bengals have in Trayveon since they haven't used him at all since they drafted him.
I think not having cornerback William Jackson III is a bigger loss than Mixon. When you look at the cornerback play it just hasn't been good across the board aside from Will. Will was asked to respond in the preseason from defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and Will's done exactly that. I think he's been really good, especially on one-on-one play. He's been really good in tight windows. Darius Phillips and LeShaun Sims have struggled at times, either with not doing their assignments or just getting beat outright. Without Jackson able to steady that secondary, Cleveland could have a big day through the air and if you're Browns, that's just exactly what you're looking for given the slump Baker Mayfield has been in the last couple of weeks.
THE EDGE: When the Bengals have to chase the game, that's really not in their favor. They're not built for that yet. The Browns can do enough to jump out to a good lead with their weapons against the Bengals defense. It won't be as lopsided in terms of total yards, but I think it will look like the first game did. BROWNS, 27-21.
The Bengals defense struggled in week two and now no nose tackle D.J. Reader and while Geno Atkins is trying to ramp up and Mike Daniels is back, I think it's a big test for these young linebackers. Can they rebound after that week two? Because I'm sure they hated that film. With Nick Chubb out, the Browns are basically down to one back with Kareem Hunt. But the crazy part about the first game is as well as the Browns ran the ball, they started with the pass and with Bengals cornerback William Jackson III out, do you double wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.? If you do, do you take another defender away from the run? I think containing the Browns offense is going to be hard if they can't put the heat on Baker.
Offensively for the Bengals, without Mixon it could be the wide receiver show. Are you really going to run the ball 25 times with Giovani Bernard, Trayveon Williams and Samaje Perine? Assuming you can keep Browns defensive end Myles Garrett at bay, which is much easier said than done, I expect them to get that passing game going. Specifically, the trio you glimpsed last week with A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins all having relatively good days. Go back to week two on that Browns defense and assuming cornerback Denzel Ward is on Higgins or Green, I don't know if there's anyone that can stop Boyd. That's a guy I would expect to have a big game. It's going to come down to keeping Burrow upright so he can hit his playmakers on the outside.
THE EDGE: Burrow is going to keep them in games and he'll do that again this week. But with the injuries, the Browns just have too much talent. BROWNS, 27-23
THE BOTTOM LINE
As well as Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has played in this series (4-1 while 12-18 against everyone else with a passer rating more than 30 points better than what he does against the rest of the division) the rivalry continues to be defined by the running game. In those four victories, the Browns have averaged 5.6 yards per carry in games they run the ball an average of 27 times.
Mayfield's lone loss against the Bengals coincided with Cincinnati running back Joe Mixon's career game, the 162-yarder in last year's finale. Their last two wins over the Browns have come courtesy of Mixon 100-yard games he carried at least 23 times, so his absence on Sunday is a tough challenge against a really good defense. With a great rusher like Myles Garrett and great cover corner like Denzel Ward, they know they can't throw it 61 times like they did last month.
So where do the carries come from? Giovani Bernard, is as tough as any 5-9, 205-pounder that has played in the NFL. But he's only carried at least 20 times three times in his career and the last time was in 2017 during his third and last 100-yard game when he went for 116 yards on 23 carries against the Lions.
So he can do it, but he hasn't had ten carries in a game in more than two years. Still, it's not like Burrow is handing it off to the Bengal.com Media Roundtable. In addition to Bernard he also has an SEC rushing leader at his disposal, although second-year man Trayveon Williams is looking for his first NFL carry.
And while the 240-pound Samaje Perine famously got no yards on his first carry in two years as a Bengal last Sunday in Indy on the biggest third-and-one of the game, he does have 183 other carries in the NFL from mostly 2017 in Washington, when he had back-to-back 100-yard games and he had six games of at least 17 carries.
Somehow, they've got to come up with enough carries to keep Garrett interested in the run and they seem to have enough guys to do that.
Jackson's a big loss at cornerback, no question. He's been consistently their highest-rated cornerback in a season there have been some struggles on the corner. The last time we saw Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., he was having a diva fit with his equipment last week. He may be a pain in the Lake, but he and running mate Jarvis Landry are good. They aren't rated as high as the Bengals' tandem of Tyler Boyd (21) and Tee Higgins (47) by Pro Football Focus. But Beckham (35) and Landry (56) are Pro Bowlers that are going to test a Bengals corner that should have Jackson and Trae Waynes on it but now have neither. But even though cornerback Darius Phillips, expected to get the start in place of Jackson, has been wildly up and down (PFF had him rated as their best defender in Baltimore and the worst the next week in Indy), he did pick Mayfield twice in last year's finale.
But, let's face it, you have to circle the run defense in this game after the Browns ripped them for 215 yards on the ground last month. That was with nose tackle D.J. Reader and tackle Mike Daniels in the middle. Daniels is back, but Reader and end Sam Hubbard are out. So is Browns running back Nick Chubb and the 124 yards he had in the last game against the Bengals, but Kareem Hunt is very much there and the Browns still lead the NFL in rushing.
No one knows if tackle Geno Atkins is back to playing 65 percent or so or if it's only third down like it has been the last two weeks, but since he wasn't out there at all last month against Cleveland that's an upgrade. The Browns don't have right guard in Wyatt Teller, who seemed to be plastered to the Bengals linebackers all night last month. Since then, the veteran backers as well as the rookies have played better and that can be big against this running game.
Grossi always casts more than a glance whenever the Bengals special teams line up against Cleveland and on Sunday especially so. It looks like he has good reason. According to Football Outsiders, the Bengals are ranked 12th in special teams and the Browns next to last.
The Browns are next to last covering kicks, where the Bengals are sixth returning, thanks to Brandon Wilson, and the Browns are 25th covering punts, where the Bengals are 13th, thanks to the competency of Alex Erickson. And the Bengals are also sixth covering punts.
If it's going to be as close as everybody thinks, the hero may be Wilson. Or maybe even punter Kevin Huber in his 24th Battle of Ohio to lead everyone in Sunday's game on either side of the ball.