One by one, ClevelandBrowns.com is breaking down each of the Browns' 2016 regular season opponents as the dog days of the offseason unfold.*
Today's preview pits the Browns against a familiar AFC North foe and head coach Hue Jackson's former stomping grounds
Who: Cincinnati Bengals
When: Week 7 (Oct. 23, Paul Brown Stadium, 1 p.m.) and Week 14 (Dec. 11, FirstEnergy Stadium)
Series History (last meeting): 39-46 (Bengals 37, Browns 3 in 2015 at FirstEnergy Stadium).
The coach: Marvin Lewis — 11th season
The stakes: The Browns have struggled recently in this bout between in-state rivals, having dropped three straight to the Bengals. But with head coach Hue Jackson at the helm — who will make his return to the Queen City in Week 7 after four seasons in Cincinnati — hope abounds that Cleveland might be able to take down this AFC North foe. After all, it was Jackson who helped mold Bengals QB Andy Dalton and its powerful offense into one of the league's top units.
Matchup to watch: Joe Haden vs. A.J. Green — What more can you ask for than a duel between one of the league's best defensive backs and best wide receivers? These two have been it since their days at Florida and Georgia, respectively. Haden, who missed much of last season because of nagging injuries and had ankle surgery in March, is expected to be ready by the season opener. Green, meanwhile, has established himself as one of the NFL's top playmakers.
Offseason storyline: A painful and controversial loss to the Steelers in the AFC Wild Card game ended what was an impressive season for the Bengals, who finished atop the AFC North and started their season 8-0. But an injury to Dalton (he broke his thumb in December) and other mishaps, though, ultimately doomed Cincinnati's quest for its first playoff victory since 1991 and perhaps bigger fortunes. Against that backdrop, the Bengals look to duplicate such success with a happier ending. They'll do so, however, without Jackson (previously the team's offensive coordinator), WRs Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, who parted ways with the team in free agency and starting safety Reggie Nelson, who signed with the Raiders. LB Vontaze Burfict will miss the first three games of the season after a helmet-to-helmet hit on Pittsburgh WR Antonio Brown.
Biggest addition: WR Tyler Boyd -- The rookie from Pittsburgh was regarded as one of the best receivers in the draft and he'll likely be thrown into the fire as the Bengals look to replace the production of Jones and Sanu.
Biggest loss: Nelson — You could make an argument that the departure Marvin Jones is the biggest loss for the Bengals, but Nelson was part of a pass defense that finished second in total defense and locked down opposing pass games. Nelson netted eight interceptions and 14 pass deflections before signing with the Oakland Raiders in free agency. While Cincinnati was able to resign safety George Iloka and cornerback Adam Jones, the Bengals will have to address the void Nelson leaves.
The star: Dalton — In part under the tutelage of Jackson, Dalton has emerged as one of the league's best quarterbacks and was key in pacing the Bengals' 8-0 start last season. He completed 66 percent of his passes for 3,250 yards and 25 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. Now entering his sixth season, Dalton will again be the centerpiece of Cincinnati's offense.
The X-Factor: RB Giovani Bernard — Along with fellow running back Jeremy Hill, Bernard's consistently in the ground game played a significant role in helping Cincinnati's offense become of the best in the league. A threat both running and catching the ball out of the backfield, Bernard combined for 1,202 yards last season. While defenses are concerned with containing the Dalton-Green connection, Bernard has proven to be equally effective.
What makes this game tough: Behind Lewis — who has brought consistency and stability to Cincinnati — the Bengals have emerged as one of the top teams in the AFC and Dalton one of the league's better quarterbacks. But the Cincinnati defense has been downright ferocious lately and should prove to be once again even without Nelson.
What makes them beatable: How does Cincinnati's offense move on without Jackson at the controls? That should make for an interesting storyline heading into Week 7, especially considering how the Bengals must address the departures of Jones and Sanu. On the other side of the ball, Burfict and Adam Jones' outburst at the end of their playoff game vs. the Steelers essentially cost Cincinnati a game they nearly had wrapped up.