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Previewing Browns at Bengals: The turning point

The Bengals take on the Browns in a game that means more than meets the eye. Can Cincinnati turn its season around with a critical division win?

NFL: Preseason-Cincinnati Bengals at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

“The Battle of Ohio” has had many twists and turns in its current 46-year history. When Paul Brown started the Cincinnati Bengals franchise and they took the field for the first time in 1968, he had to wait two long years before his upstart team took on his first professional franchise he helped create in the Cleveland Browns.

While Brown didn’t initially get revenge on his former boss, Art Modell, the teams ended up splitting the series after the AFL/NFL merger occurred in 1970 in the first year of the rivalry. For Paul and his son Mike, the two annual games against the Browns are always much more personal than any other contest on the yearly schedule.

The first chapter in the rivalry this year has an odd aura to it. Cleveland completely overhauled its team with both staff and player changes this offseason. Gone is Johnny Manziel, who is living a life of, well, we’re not quite sure. Hue Jackson, who has longtime ties to the Bengals, took a job across the state instead of accepting a succession plan (the idea was shot down by Mike Brown) with Cincinnati.

The move hasn’t worked out well for either party.

Jackson has seemed to have been given free reign with personnel decisions in his new gig, displacing a number of veterans, accumulating draft picks and seeming to feel out who fits into the Browns’ long-term plans. It makes sense with a team that is rebuilding, but we’re also talking about an ownership that has shown a penchant for an itchy trigger finger when it comes to having patience with coaches. At 0-6, one has to wonder how much the grip on Jackson’s leash has tightened.

In Cincinnati, the offense lacks the creativity and firepower seen under Jackson’s watch. The promote-from-within strategy in any business has its benefits, but Ken Zampese seems be drowning in his new coordinator responsibilities. Marvin Lewis has publicly backed Zampese’s work through six games, but his similar admission of “missing the hell out of him (Jackson)” strikes a chord with most Bengals fans as the team sits at 2-4.

Unfortunately, when you look at the records of the two teams heading into Sunday, it reeks of a game that might as well have been played in 2000. In actuality though, both teams could have had better starts to their respective 2016 seasons. Whether it’s because of overall roster talent, simple bad breaks, a tough schedule or a combination of all with player underachievement, both teams and their fan bases are unhappy with where they currently sit.

There are a number of individual matchups to watch as both teams take the field this Sunday. Tyler Eifert might be back and should provide a spark if so, while Browns tight end Gary Barnidge could give the Bengals defense problems. Which quarterback will make the critical mistakes to cripple their team—Andy Dalton or Cody Kessler?

We can harp on the player matchups all we want, but the truth of the matter is that this Sunday is a coaching chess match. Jackson against Lewis and Zampese against Ray Horton (another former Bengals player and coach) highlight the head-to-heads from the sidelines.

There aren’t many facets in which the Browns have the upper hand against the Bengals, aside from Jackson’s great familiarity with Lewis and the Cincinnati’s players. It’s in that facet that should strike a bit of discomfort in a game which Cincinnati is heavily favored.

For those who need a history lesson, Jackson’s ties to the Bengals run deep. After molding the receiver trio of Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry into one of the league’s best as their position coach from 2004-2006, Jackson made two more stops in Atlanta and Baltimore before landing with the Raiders.

It was with Oakland that Jackson landed his first NFL head coaching gig and engineered the biggest trade in Bengals history back in 2011. After losing starting quarterback Jason Campbell for the year in Week 6 and the trade deadline approaching, Jackson phoned his friend Lewis. Disgruntled quarterback Carson Palmer decided he would rather retire than play for the Bengals, so Cincinnati subsequently dealt him to Oakland in a blockbuster deal.

The fact that the Bengals received a first and second round pick, as well as Jackson as an assistant coach one year later shows that they got the better of the deal. Upon his return to Cincinnati, Jackson worked miracles with the Bengals’ offense.

Facing an absurd amount of injuries in 2014, Jackson turned to his then-rookie running back, Jeremy Hill, to create an improbable playoff berth. In 2015, Jackson engineered a creative offense only to be rivaled by the 1988 squad that made the Super Bowl. Jackson felt the familiar sting of losing his starting quarterback once again last year and expectations weren’t met after a 12-4 campaign.

Jackson and his Browns have a chance at a signature win this Sunday—one they can build upon for the next couple of years under his watch. Being 0-6 and starving for something to hang their hat on for the rest of 2016 and into next year, who better to get a big win against than their bitter in-state rivals?

While most fans and media pundits are confident in Cincinnati’s chances this Sunday, the truth is that this is a game that will immediately tell which direction the rest of 2016 will go for the Bengals. If they lose this one, a tailspin would undoubtedly ensue and looking ahead to 2017 will begin a practice this team hasn’t experienced since 2010.

Cincy Jungle’s Braden Whited threw out an interesting stat recently, noting the Bengals’ scoring of 30-plus points while allowing only 10 or less against the Browns in the past three contests. While certain signs point to that being the case again this Sunday, I don’t see it being that comfortable this time around.

Browns 17, Bengals 27

AC — Just win, baby.