Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, OH (November 5th)
FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland, OH (December 6th)
Week 9, Thursday, November 5th, 8:15 p.m. EST (Cincinnati)
Week 13, December 6th, 1 p.m. EST (Cleveland)
Conference and Division:
Doug Pettine is in his second season as the Browns' head coach. Last year, the powers that be forced him to play Johnny Manziel before the team was out of the playoff hunt. This year, Pettine has been putting more of his thumbprint on the team.
Recapping Last Season:
The Browns shot off to a 7-4 start and were alive for the playoffs (as were all AFC North teams towards the end of the season), but stumbled down the stretch losing five straight. Brian Hoyer was the starting quarterback for much of the year, but as he began to falter, the calls for his head became louder. Rookie Johnny Manziel then took over the spot.
"Johnny Football" made his first start against the Bengals in Week 15 in the Dawg Pound to much fanfare. Cincinnati squashed any hope of Manziel having a good debut to the tune of a 30-0 shutout of the Browns at home. Making matters worse, star wide receiver Josh Gordon only played in five games last year because of suspension and the team lost center Alex Mack to injury. The Browns went 2-4 in the AFC North last year, with wins against the Bengals and Steelers.
2015 Season Outlook:
Once again, Cleveland's quarterback position is muddy. Josh McCown was signed in the same offseason where Manziel checked himself into rehab, but neither seem like great options for the club. Making matters worse for the Browns is the gaping hole where Gordon once filled, as he is serving a year-long suspension. Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline were both added to aid in Gordon's vacancy.
The running attack that helped pave the way to Cleveland's good start to the year, appears to be in shambles at the moment. Terrence West and Isaiah Crowell are both still there, but haven't been favorites of the coaching staff of late. Rookie Duke Williams was added in the third round of the draft, but has been largely unavailable because of hamstring and concussion issues.
The offensive line will likely be a big strength with Joe Thomas anchoring the left tackle spot, Mack returning to center and the addition of Cameron Erving in the draft. Like others in the AFC North, the Browns might be trying to employ a ground-and-pound mantra.
It appears the other strength of the team will be its defense. Danny Shelton will be a great addition in the middle of the defensive line and the secondary remains formidable with Joe Haden at corner and Tashaun Gipson and Donte Whitner at safety. One notable recent departure is former first round pick Phil Taylor, who was a recent cut. They will likely be a scrappy team who is tough to beat, but most are figuring that the AFC North crown will go to one of the other three teams in the division.
2015 Early Outlook:
Since 2012, the Bengals and Browns have split the annual series after Cincinnati began to take more wins in the Marvin Lewis era. Both teams embarrassed each other last year on big stages and at each other's stadiums, with the Browns hammering the Bengals on Thursday Night Football and the Bengals clobbering Manziel in a widely-watched debut.
The NFL obviously has a sense of humor, as the two teams meet at PBS again on Thursday Night Football 364 days after they did in 2014. Will the Bengals use last year's beatdown as bulletin board material for the game, or will the Browns take advantage of Cincinnati's constant primetime struggles?
Cincinnati will likely want to ground-and-pound Cleveland themselves, so the big match-ups to watch will be Shelton versus Russell Bodine and Geno Atkins against Mack. Fans of both teams will also keep a watchful eye on Haden covering A.J. Green, as both guys have made plays on each other as pros.
As it almost always seems to be the case in the AFC North slugfests, turnovers will be key. If the re-built Bengals defensive line can crack the formidable Browns offensive line and cause errant throws from Cleveland's quarterback, they should be in good shape for wins. If Andy Dalton makes poor throws and/or the team can't run the ball as they desire, it could be two white-knuckle affairs.
One thing we know in this series: expect the unexpected. Whether it was Shayne Graham's "was-it-or-wasn't-it last second field goal" in 2009, the insane shootout like in 2004, or wide-margin shutouts, these games always bring interesting scenarios. The series also remains incredibly interesting because of the geographical proximity of the two cities and the vast history of the Brown family and both franchises.