The Browns are coming off of a disheartening, 20-13 loss to the Steelers, which snapped a three-game winning streak. Meanwhile, the Bengals are coming off their first win of the season, a 22-6 victory over the Jets, which snapped an 11-game losing streak.
The Browns need to get back on track and defeat the Bengals for the third straight time dating back to last year. They will have to contend with the Red Rifle, QB Andy Dalton, who was reinserted into the lineup last week and delivered a win. Dalton is 11-4 lifetime against the Browns as a starter, and this is not a team or a game the Browns can take lightly.
Dalton, in fact, is likely playing to audition for a starting job elsewhere, and if you don't think he is still dangerous, just ask the Jets, who saw him lead an efficient offense to 22 points, Cincinnati's most since Week 5 (when Dalton was also the QB).
As has been the case in many other weeks, the Browns are the better team on paper in Week 14. Unfortunately, they don't play the games on paper, and the Browns have found themselves on the wrong side of the score more often than not. To prevent that from happening Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, where the Browns have won three straight games, they must follow this week's winning mix.
1. Score 20 points
When you look at the Browns offensive stars -- Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham, Kareem Hunt and others -- it would be logical to assume that this is an offense that would be putting up 20-plus points each and every week. Unfortunately, that has not been the reality this season for the Browns.
Through 12 games this year, the Browns have topped 20 points just five times. In those five games, the Browns are 4-1, with the lone loss coming against the Seattle Seahawks, when they lost 32-28. The four wins saw the Browns put up 23 against the Jets, 40 against the Ravens, 21 against the Steelers and 41 against the Dolphins.
When the Browns are getting the job done on offense, it leads to victories, period, and this week should be no different. The Bengals are 0-9 in 2019 when they allow their opponents to score more than 20 points, something the Browns did in both meetings with them a year ago (35 and 26, respectively). It should be noted, however, that after surrendering 20-plus in each of their first nine games, the Bengals have allowed just 17 points to the Raiders, 16 to the Steelers and six to the Jets in their last three games.
To get over the 20-point mark, the Browns will either have to score from deep or find a way to convert red zone trips into touchdowns. The Bengals have allowed 51 pass plays of more than 20 yards this year, fourth-most in the NFL, so some big plays are most certainly not out of the question. As for taking care of business in the red zone, this year has been a tough one for the Browns. Cleveland has converted 22 of their 41 red zone trips into touchdowns (53.7 percent), which ranks tied for 20th this year. Improving on that ratio could be challenging against the Bengals, who have allowed just 17 red zone scores to their opponents on 40 red zone trips (42.5 percent), which is the third-toughest rate in the league.
One thing to note is the Browns have scored more than 20 points in three of their last four home games and have scored a touchdown on their opening possession in four straight as well. If they can make it five straight opening drive scores at home, they will be well on their way to 20-plus points and what should be a win on Sunday.
Check out photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Bengals Sunday by team photographer Matt Starkey
2. Protect Baker Mayfield and run the ball
The good news for the Browns entering Week 14 is that starting LT Greg Robinson is out of the concussion protocol and is expected to be back protecting Mayfield's blind side. This is a huge development coming off last week's game that was missed by Robinson and saw Mayfield get sacked five times by the Steelers, who had him under constant duress.
A look at the season-long stats shows that the Bengals' pass rush shouldn't pose a huge threat Sunday. After all, the Bengals have but 20 sacks on the season, which ranks 30th in the NFL. However, a closer look at the numbers shows a Bengals defense that has really turned up the heat on QBs of late. In their last three games, the Bengals have three-plus sacks in each game and have totaled 10 of their 20 sacks this year.
It is probably no coincidence that in those three games, no team has topped 20 points, thrown for 300 yards or thrown for multiple scores. That brings me to the next point in this section. Let's come out and run the ball against the Bengals.
Cincinnati has the league's worst run defense in 2019, allowing 157.6 yards per game on the ground. No team has surrendered more 20-plus yard runs (20) or first downs on the ground (99) than the Bengals. The Bengals have allowed 13 rushing touchdowns this year, tied for third most, and are giving up 4.8 yards per carry (fourth highest).
The Browns, as you may well know, have Chubb, who is the NFL's leading rusher with 1,175 yards through 12 games. They also have Hunt, who was the NFL's leading rusher in 2017. That tandem has been dynamic for the Browns, combining for 699 total yards and three touchdowns in their four games together. Yes please!
3. Prevent big plays
This one did not go so well last week against the Steelers, but it's critical and we are gonna run it back again this week. In fact, when you look at the three games that the Browns were solid favorites in against suspect offenses (TEN, DEN and PIT) and lost, the culprit was the same every time: multiple game-changing big plays were allowed by the Browns defense.
Against the Titans, the Browns shut down their offense for the majority of the game, but on three major plays, Tennessee picked up more than half of its offense for the game. Two bombs to WR A.J. Brown led directly to double-digit points, and then the backbreaker came on a 75-yard catch and run screen to Derrick Henry that effectively sealed the win for the Titans.
In Denver, the Browns were taking on a quarterback in his NFL debut, Brandon Allen. Like the Tennessee game, the Browns defense held the Broncos offense in check for the majority of the game. Unfortunately, a few monster plays changed the game in favor of Denver. Their first touchdown of the day was a 21-yard pass to Courtland Sutton. That was followed by a 75-yard catch and run score by Noah Fant. The final touchdown and game sealer for Denver was a 30-yard run by Phillip Lindsay, who had a 40-yard scamper earlier in that same drive. Over 60 percent of the Broncos offense for the entire game was accumulated on four plays.
Last week with the Steelers, it was again those chunk plays that killed the Browns, especially on a five-play, 69-yard drive that took less than a minute to end the first half. On that drive, Hodges connected for 28 yards to Jones and added a 30-yard touchdown to James Washington. Their first field goal was set up by a 31-yard pass to Washington as well. The Steelers' other touchdown came as the direct result of a 41-yard pass to Washington that was immediately followed up by a pass interference in the end zone to set up Benny Snell's 1-yard touchdown plunge.
Against Cincinnati, the Browns will once again be facing an offense that has talent for sure in RB Joe Mixon, WR Tyler Boyd and Dalton, but that has not been explosive by any stretch of the imagination. The only player who has demonstrated any home run ability has been receiver John Ross, who is back this week after missing the majority of the season. Ross started the season with 11 catches for 270 yards and three scores in the first two games and is averaging 20.5 yards per catch on the year.
The Browns once again need to play sound defense, avoid giving up the big plays that can change games and keep the ball in front of them. Once again, if they are able to execute on that, the Browns should get to 3-1 in the AFC North this year and win their fourth straight game at home.