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Browns vs Bengals Game Preview: Trapped in history

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The Bengals are riding high to the best start in their 48-year history, but they have their second divisional game in a five-day span. Can they keep the "Dawgs" at bay in Cincinnati on Thursday night?

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

"Trap game".

While one often thinks of Admiral Ackbar in Return of the Jedi any time the word "trap" is uttered, the two-word phrase has become commonplace in NFL vernacular. It resonates with the "any given Sunday" crowd and plays to the league's preference for parity among its franchises. Speaking in more of a micro approach, it's a phrase that can be applied to this Thursday night's game when the Cleveland Browns travel to Cincinnati to face the Browns.

For those who have been longtime fans of Who Dey Army, the history of the two franchises should be well-known. One of professional football's most prominent architects, Paul Brown, founded both teams 22 years apart. His offspring now run the younger team in The Queen City, while only his name remains in Cleveland, a few hours away in the state of Ohio.

Aside from a brief hiatus from the team taking the field, both teams have another commonality: long stretches of overall ineptitude. Mismanagement of personnel decisions, poor coach selections and short leashes with important areas of employment led to a dreadful stretch of "football", if that's what one can actually call the product thrown out on the field.

Throughout the 1990s and into the early part of the new millennium, the Bengals were widely-recognized as one of the worst organizations in any American professional sport. From 1991-2002, Cincinnati amassed a 55-137 record and the city was threatened with a move to another city from ownership that largely kept the fan base at an arm's length. A new stadium and new head coach three years later had things moving in the right direction.

The hiring of Marvin Lewis ushered in a major turnaround in a wide range of aspects for the Bengals. The never-ending quarterback carousel that saw nine different starters in 12 years (some of which were pulled and re-inserted in the lineup) finally settled with the former Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator's hiring. In the 12-plus seasons Lewis has been at the helm of the Bengals, they have only had four starting quarterbacks in the span and one was due to injury. Aside from Lewis' prowess and grabbing of the stubborn Mike Browns' ear for infrastructural changes, it's at quarterback that has helped the resurgence of the Bengals. In the Lewis ear, they have gone 107-90-2 in a stark contrast to before his arrival.

Cleveland was football royalty for over two decades as the sport finally began to gain strong footing with the American public. Paul Brown forged a dynasty with immortal gridiron figures like Otto Graham and Jim Brown, as they garnered eight championships and had a chance at five others in title losses. But, as the stigma with the city and its pro sports franchises go, the Browns became a punchline.

After a four-year hiatus from the NFL, the franchise moved to Baltimore at the hands of Art Modell, the once-proud football king who had been down in the dumps. Just once since 1999 have the Browns made the postseason and they've garnered an 86-160 record over the past 14.5 years.

In the early part of Lewis' head coaching tenure, his Bengals largely-dominated the series against the Browns. However, in recent years, even with Cleveland continuing to struggle, they've managed three wins over the past five games against the Bengals.

The most egregious loss the Browns handed the Bengals recently came almost a year to the day they meet again this Thursday night. It was supposed to be another notch in the annual playoff-contending Bengals' belt, along with a nice gesture of honoring Devon Still's daughter, Leah, but the game turned into a laugher quick.

As they tend to do on the national stage, Lewis' clan became paper tigers. Mistakes that hadn't been made all year went center stage for yet another national audience to label the Bengals as pretenders once again. A 24-3 embarrassment followed at Paul Brown Stadium, leaving the home crowd disenchanted at the postseason prospects.

Similarly, the Bengals dealt the Browns a huge home embarrassment of their own five weeks later. It was supposed to be a banner day with the first start of Johnny Manziel's career, but Cincinnati reminded Cleveland of who they've been over the past decade and a half. A 30-0 beatdown in the "Dawg Pound" ensued and faith in "Johnny Football" as a viable starter has been questioned since.

Some believe the fascination with American football and even the sport of Professional Wrestling ("sport" is loosely used there) come with the aspect of drama. And, even though most of America will still have its eyes on New England, Denver, Green Bay and elsewhere, 2015's first installment of "The Battle of Ohio" has plenty of storylines worthy of a soap opera.

As we get closer to kickoff, it appears Manziel will again be at the helm for the Browns because of multiple injuries to Josh McCown. If he's looking for solace in a plethora of weapons being readily available, JFF will be sorely disappointed. Wide receivers Andrew Hawkins, Brian Hardline and tight end Rob Housler are all on the injury report and didn't practice early in the week. Manziel will also be without Jordan Cameron, who left via free agency this offseason.

Who he will have is Gary Barnidge, a tight end who has quietly taken the NFL by storm in 2015. While Tyler Eifert is the talk of the town with his six touchdown grabs in seven games, few realize that Barnidge has the the same amount and is on pace for a 1,000-yard receiving season. He'll be Manziel's security blanket on the evening, for sure.

Last year, the Browns rode a three-headed rushing attack for much of the year that broke down as the dead of winter approached. On that game a year ago, it was Ben Tate, Isaiah Crowell and Terence West who helped create nightmares for opposing defenses. Crowell is the leading rusher, but rookie Duke Johnson and veteran Robert Turbin are sharing the load of carries. It hasn't had the same effect as 2014.

All signs point to the Bengals running away with this one at home. But, on Monday after the bruise-fest against the Steelers, Cincinnati's crew reportedly looked exhausted as they prepped for another game just a few days later. It isn't just any game though--it's one in the the most physical division in football.

The one big hope Cleveland had in this game had to lay within cornerback Joe Haden. Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green has made his share of plays against the Browns, but Haden has been a thorn in Green's side since both arrived in their respective teams' cities. It appears the Pro Bowl corner won't be playing because of concussion issues, so Green should be able to have his way against the Cleveland defense.

It's also a good evening to get the Bengals' rushing attack back to old form. In the first matchup last year, Giovani Bernard was out injured and Hill had an tough day at the office with just 55 rushing yards and a lost fumble. Bernard has been largely outstanding in 2015, while Hill has struggled to consistently get positive yardage. Both have found the end zone often though this season.

Currently, the Browns rank dead last in the NFL against the run, giving up an average of 147 yards per game. It's that area which the Bengals would like to exploit, as the Browns defense as a whole is ranked just 30th overall.

Manziel is going to have to pull out a miracle and show the Bengals something they haven't seen from him and this Browns' offense before. It's that, or simply exploiting fatigue from a team coming off of a hard-fought, emotional win against the Steelers just a few days ago.

Bengals 34, Browns 17

AC -- Hands like Ted Ginn, Jr. since 1982.