The last several games have become increasingly important for the Browns, and not for good reasons.
At 2-5, Cleveland sorely needs to snap its four-game losing streak, and Monday night against the Bengals would be the perfect time to do so before the Browns head into a Week 9 bye week.
After a sluggish start to the year, the Browns could view their record with a "glass half full" approach heading into the bye if they can strike back to within two games behind .500. A sixth loss, however, would spell a long 13 days before the Browns are back on the field.
"I think the whole thing is to just empty the tank this week and just see what happens," QB Jacoby Brissett said. "That's how you always play but even more so knowing the situation and being a division game needing a win. Just empty the tank and then when it's time to recharge, we recharge."
These are the questions the Browns face as they head into another must-win week.
1. Can the defense slow another top AFC North QB?
Last week, the Browns limited Lamar Jackson to just 179 scrimmage yards in what was their best defensive performance of the year. This year, they'll have to slow a QB who has thrown 12 touchdowns and one interception in the last five games.
Bengals QB Joe Burrow has the offense humming right now and has been one of the hottest pass-throwers in the league in October. He's led Cincinnati to four wins in the last five games and is coming off a season-best performance of 481 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-17 win over Atlanta. Burrow topped 300 passing yards by halftime.
The Browns, however, have been an Achilles heel of sorts for Burrow. He's never beaten Cleveland in his three career starts and struggled in his lone start against them last year, a 41-16 Browns win where he passed for 282 yards but threw two interceptions. The Browns also bested Burrow and the Bengals in two shootouts in 2020.
"I like our chances," Pro Bowl DE Myles Garrett said. "I think our defense has had good games against the Bengals and Burrow, and I think we have what it takes to make him uncomfortable and get after him."
Check out photos of players and coaches working to prepare for the teams regular season game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football
2. What's the situation at tight end?
One of the biggest injury losses the Browns will have Monday is at tight end, where David Njoku has been ruled out due to an ankle injury suffered last week.
That means third-year vet Harrison Bryant will step into the top tight end role. He's caught 14 passes on 21 targets this season for 114 yards and has yet to find the end zone, although he could be more of a red zone target for Brissett with Njoku out.
"My goal every week is to be prepared to have an expanded role because in terms of a game," Bryant said. "You never know who is going to go down or what can transpire. Every week, I'm preparing to have to play every snap."
Bryant's role could grow even larger if Pharaoh Brown, who was ruled questionable due to a concussion, is unable to play. Brown is the only other active TE on the list, so the Browns would likely elevate Miller Forristall or Zaire Mitchell-Paden from the practice squad if Brown is out.
Bryant has had success against the Bengals before. His best career game came against them in 2020, when he totaled a career-high 56 yards and caught two touchdowns, the only multi-touchdown game of his career. The Browns would gladly take a performance like that again.
"Oftentimes, he's not the No. 1 target in the tight end room just because of the guys who have been in that room before him," offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. "He will be the top guy if those other two do not make it to the game on Sunday. Excited for him. He works as hard as anybody. A really smart guy on the football field, has really good instincts and awareness, catches the ball well and gives you everything he has in the run game."
3. How much will the Bengals miss Chase?
The biggest news ahead of Monday was that Pro Bowl Bengals WR Ja'Marr Chase would miss multiple games due to a hip injury.
Chase, the 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year, had unsurprisingly been Burrow's top weapon again this season and caught two touchdowns in each of the last two weeks before the injury. The loss of Chase is significant for the Bengals, but it's not like they don't have any other reliable weapons — Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are certainly capable of filling the void.
When asked how Chase's loss might impact Burrow, Garrett replied with "none."
"I think he'll play exactly the same," he said. "He still has a variety of skill guys he can get the ball to in a variety of ways. I know he'll definitely miss his presence in the offense, but he'll still be able to open up and throw in many of the same routes and concepts because there are a lot of talented receivers they have."
Boyd and Higgins have each totaled 455 receiving yards this season. Boyd caught a career-high 155 yards last week against the Falcons.
4. What other key players are banged up?
The Browns will also be down RG Wyatt Teller (calf) and CB Denzel Ward (concussion), who were both ruled out. Teller will miss his second straight game, while Ward will miss his third. CBs Greg Newsome II and Greedy Williams are also ruled questionable, although both players were limited in practice Friday. Williams missed the first two practice days, and Newsome was limited all week.
LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah did not practice this week due to a knee injury and is ruled questionable. After a productive performance last week with six tackles and two pass breakups against the Ravens, Owusu-Koramoah would be a big absence for a Browns defense that needs as many top players as possible to slow the Bengals.
On the Bengals side, the biggest absence on defense will be 340-pound defensive tackle Josh Tupou (calf). Starting CB Eli Apple (hamstring) has also been ruled doubtful.