Those predicting the Bengals to lose this week in Cleveland are only saying so because they think karma is on the Browns' side, writing things like “if they can't beat Cincinnati, who can they beat?”
This is a symptom of deep-rooted Bengal hating, the idea that the Bengals are still not a good team or even an average one. To lump them in with the Browns is simply unfair, but this we're seeing it.
Analytically speaking, there is no logic behind picking the Browns. They are not very talented, not very deep and frankly not well coached. They are currently a flawed organization that has been poorly managed by Mike Holmgren and are perpetually in rebuilding mode. Selecting a 29-year-old rookie quarterback in the first round only adds to the skepticism of the front-office decision making. Brandon Weeden does make some nice throws on occasion, and he can become an alright QB in this league someday (maybe), but if that happens in three years he will already be old in the NFL sense. If next year the Browns select Matt Barkley fans will groan over wasting an important pick on an obvious career backup in Weeden. He goes through his progressions slowly, he panics easily and looks shaken and lost all too often—typical gripes for rookies—but because of his age, he seems more of a joke than a budding prospect. That being said, Weeden had a nice game against the Bengals in their first match up, as Ryan Tannehill did last week, so a decent showing would not shock me, but in general, Brandon Weeden seems like shark bait against most defenses.
Speaking of defenses, the Bengals seem a bit more grounded in that department these days. Trent Richardson is easily the most exciting offensive player in Cleveland and he will continue to be the focus of the defensive preparation throughout the week. Last time these teams played, I advocated for a focus on stopping Weeden on third down and allowing Richardson to get his yards, but now that the run defense looks more capable, I say load up the box and dare them to throw. Unbelievably, every man on the active Bengal roster practiced this week, so a full stable of healthy corners to rotate in and out should breathe even more life into Mike Zimmer's crew. Cincinnati also gets to see what the previously suspended Dontay Moch can do as a pass-rusher. I felt the Carlos Dunlap Effect was slightly less than usual last week and once more, having another guy in the rotation helps the entire defense. I suspect a strong showing on Sunday.
The Browns defense, however, is banged up. Joe Haden is a remarkable player, a top-five corner in my mind. Of all the dubious Holmgren picks one can think of, Haden is a gem. His match-up with A.J. Green will be premium stuff to watch and Andy Dalton will have to treat him with respect. Some of the other guys in that Cleveland secondary, however, appear extremely vulnerable.
Once Miami completely shut down the Bengals running attack last week, they dropped their safeties deep and dared Cincinnati to throw short on them. I thought Jay Gruden and Dalton could survive a bit longer running a one-dimensional short-passing offense before it became a glaring problem, but by the end, the predictability became tangible and an interception felt inevitable. In a sense, the Bengals were exposed a bit as to how to limit big plays by taking their running game away. This week and beyond, teams will make Cincinnati prove that they can produce meaningful rushing yards. To compound the issue, Bernard Scott, a fragile-bodied man with an often wasted skill set, has busted his knee and is out for the year. The other Bengal backs are bigger guys and not of the super-jukey variety like Scott. The offensive line, a group I flooded with praise just a week before, needs to push the opposition around a little better than what we saw against the Dolphins to make this whole thing work.
Against Cleveland, I think the rushing totals will improve but not dramatically. I would expect Brian Leonard screens and the obligatory end-around to Andrew Hawkins to help the ground game. I also think the other receiver, whoever it may be, opposite of Green needs to find himself in single coverage deep and Dalton needs to give him a shot. A.J. Green is a classically trained wide receiver, but the other guys need to take more advantage of the attention he gets. Perhaps they haven't been as integrated into the scheme yet, keeping them in the freezer for the season's second half, but nonetheless, I would like to see more production from the players not named Green, Hawkins or Gresham. Last week on a crucial third-down play late in the fourth quarter, Brandon Tate dropped a tough pass to set up what would be a missed field goal. As important as it is for Gruden to involve them, it's equally important they make the plays called for them. That's what has made Hawkins so great: he makes the most of his chances. These supporting cast members will be vital to the Bengals success later in the season. It's important they start showing more of what they can do now.
All in all, the Bengals win this game. They are a better team, and while it always feels scary to play a winless opponent, execution, not karma, wins football games. Cincinnati is healthier, angrier, has a better quarterback and is better coached than is Cleveland. The Steelers loom next on the schedule and some teams may overlook their present for a game like that on the horizon, but this team is better than that. The pundits who can't help but doubt the Bengals at every step have gone overboard picking the upset this week. There is no good reason it should happen. None.
Bengals 27, Browns 9
Mojokong—know thy self.