The AFC North leaders went back on track in Week 12 with a nice win at home against the St. Louis Rams, and now, they hit the road to face the Browns, on a short week. Cleveland currently holds the No. 2 pick in the draft with a 2-9 record, and some wonder if it would be better for them to tank the rest of the season to have a better chance at the first overall pick in next year's draft. Cincinnati is fighting for home advantage throughout the playoffs at 9-2 and can't afford any loss if they want to avoid Wild Card weekend in the playoffs.
Still, the Browns always give the Bengals a fight with two wins in their last three matchups at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Browns will be a dangerous opponent, despite their record. Here are a few of the key Browns players you should watch for as Cleveland looks to upset Cincinnati.
1) Gary Barnidge
Is he the best playmaker Cleveland has left? With Austin Davis projected to start, Barnidge is going to become even more important in the passing game. The Kentucky native rebounded well from a modest outing in Week 9 in Cincy and has notched 13 catches for 156 yards and a score in the last two games. He is one of the best tight ends in the NFL right now, and you can expect Davis to look for him a lot.
He has been best with Josh McCown under center, and he torched the Ravens in the middle of the field for the entire first half on Monday. With a running game that has not been going anywhere this year - 31st in the NFL with 74.5 yards per game - and the Bengals playing soft coverage, Barnidge could see plenty of targets off play action fakes.
I think the Bengals' defense is better than this, but Barnidge is the key to stopping the Browns' short passing game.
He was nowhere to be seen in Week 9, but that had to do a lot more with playing alongside Manziel than his lack of talent. Barnidge even gets the isolation treatment that good tight ends have on their teams, like on this fourth and one that kept the Browns' drive alive on Monday.
He has the size and the skills of a very good receiving tight end, and is also providing with a lot of yards after the catch. Barnidge is the Browns' only legitimate red zone target as well, and Cincinnati's secondary is hurting, which could play a huge factor in the end zone come Sunday.
2) Cameron Erving
A Cleveland first round pick in the recent draft has had a rough start to his NFL career, with a forgettable game against a very good defensive line - the Steelers - and another bad one on Monday. He was selected as a center out of Florida State, but was said to be capable of playing anywhere on the line. He is replacing Joel Bitonio at left guard and if called into duty on Sunday against Cincinnati, he could have a really tough afternoon facing Geno Atkins inside.
To be fair, not everything was his fault in Pittsburgh, a team that is very good at disguising their pressures.
He was supposed to be better at the running game, but a holding penalty called against him negated an Isaiah Crowell touchdown in the third quarter against the Steelers.
Of course he might not even play on Sunday as Bitonio has practiced - although was limited all week. But he was also responsible for the pressure that came off of the late blocked field goal, so he could have an impact on special teams as well.
3) Karlos Dansby
He had a 52-yard pick six last week, and also leads Cleveland with 82 tackles. The veteran linebacker is not one of the reasons the Browns' rushing defense is the worst one in the NFL for the second straight year. There have been some concerns about the entire defense being confused under second year coordinator Jim O'Neil and his inability to put his players in the place to make a play.
The truth is, there is some awful tackling out there for the Browns.
The former Cardinal and Dolphin has always been stout though and with no help from a overmatched defensive line he might look like he's lost a step in the open field. But, of course his football IQ is still the same, as evidenced by the interception notched on Monday and this impressive tackle for a loss.
The scheme is just a bad fit, with no real run stoppers up front - besides nose tackle Danny Shelton - and a lot of inefficient pass rushers.
Cincinnati is trying to build Jeremy Hill's game back up, so watch out, because he could have a big outing in Cleveland.
4) Paul Kruger
If the Browns have some kind of pass rush, Kruger is their best guy. The former Raven hasn't been who Cleveland though he might become when they gave him a fat free contract in free agency, but he is a skilled edge rusher who could give the Bengals' offensive line some trouble.
Cleveland only has 16 sacks so far, only worse than the Giants and the Falcons. Kruger had one against Cincy in Week 9 that killed their first drive of the second half, beating back up right tackle Eric Winston effortlessly. Of course Andre Smith is playing on Sunday, but he is not having a career year either.
5) K'Waun Williams
The backup defensive back had to step in on Monday once Justin Gilbert left with a concussion and he will again start against the Bengals with the aforementioned Gilbert and Haden both out on Sunday.
The second-year player out of Pittsburgh got beaten badly by Kamar Aiken once he had to move outside, but he is better than alternatives like Johnson Bademosi.
I'm sure he will have fun matching up with A.J. Green and Marvin Jones.
Don't count Cleveland out just yet, because if there is any team that can annoy the Bengals on any given Sunday, it's the Cleveland Browns, no matter what.