When the Bengals arrive in Cleveland this weekend for a pivotal AFC North showdown, the stakes will be as intense as it gets.
"For the Cleveland Browns," defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil said, "our playoffs start on Sunday."
While coach Mike Pettine warned his team the Bengals will be keen to erase the results from the previous matchup – a 24-3 drubbing on national television – the Browns' defense will also be licking their chops, determined to recreate their brilliance from early November.
Cleveland's defense turned into a real life barricade for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton was pressured into inaccurate throws, and the passes that were on target were almost always batted away by the Browns' top-notch secondary. Bengals fans booed and left the game early, while Dalton was relegated to the bench in favor of backup Jason Campbell.
Dalton's struggles against the Browns don't just date back to the Thursday Night Football matchup. This chart details some of the not-so-flattering numbers from the 27-year-old quarterback.
Week 10, 2014
Week 11, 2013
Week 4, 2013
As fantastic as the results have been for the Browns, O'Neil made it clear: The Browns are expecting a dog fight Sunday.
"We are not anticipating that happening again. We are anticipating four quarters of football," O'Neil said. "We still have to work hard and execute every play."
It should be noted the Bengals were able to reel off three straight wins on the road after losing to the Browns before dropping last Sunday's game to the Steelers, 42-21. In those three wins, Cincinnati gave up 13 or less points, getting key stops on third downs. Offensively, wide receiver A.J. Green has been on a tear, averaging 131 yards receiving in his last three games.
Still, it would be naïve of the Browns not to admit they've been playing lights-out football on defense. The biggest change from the beginning of the season? A boatload of turnovers. Cleveland forced four last week against the Colts and still leads the NFL in interceptions with 19.
The Browns' secondary has been so good, there's a legitimate chance four members could earn a trip to the Pro Bowl. Despite missing two games, safety Tashaun Gipson is still leading the league in interceptions with six, while cornerback Buster Skrine is tied for fifth with four picks. Safety Donte Whitner, the heart and soul of the entire defense, is leading Cleveland in tackles with 83, while Joe Haden has looked like the best cornerback in the league as of late.
Sunday's game may actually come down to Cincinnati's running game. This time around, Giovani Bernard will be back in the lineup for the Bengals. Bernard hasn't gone for more than 100 yards in his last five games, so the shifty running back could be due for a big performance. Cleveland will also pay attention to Jeremy Hill, the running back who bewilderingly said the Browns were, "worse than I thought, to be honest," after a three-touchdown defeat.
The winner of this game will position themselves for a January run. The loser can probably start booking tropical vacations.
And that's the way the Battle of Ohio should be.
Watch: talks about defense's resiliency