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NFL Week 4 Bengals at Browns game preview: Midwestern battlegrounds

The first installment of “The Battle of Ohio” in 2017 features two winless clubs. Is it possible that one win turns an entire season around?

Cincinnati Bengals vs Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Mike Brown, owner of the Cincinnati Bengals, has a reputation of being loyal and patient with certain employees—often to a fault. He has stuck with players who have frustrated the fan base with arrests, as well as coaches who have overstayed their respective welcomes.

Still, there is one thing that sticks in the old man’s craw more than most anything else: losing to the rival Cleveland Browns. Employees who don’t notch regular wins against the rival get shown the door. Much like the Brown family’s traits of loyalty, conservative approaches in running the team and a sprinkle of frugality, they also have very long memories which sometimes leads to grudges.

Ever since his iconic father, Paul Brown, was fired by the team he created in Cleveland, the family has created a hatred since January 7th, 1963. To spite Modell and the Browns franchise, Paul moved to Cincinnati and created the Bengals—a team with the same two first initials and very similar uniform colors.

Though the man who fired him, Art Modell, moved to Baltimore to create the Ravens and has since died, the Brown family has bittersweet memories of the city of Cleveland.

“It’s poignant when I go up there,” Brown said via The Columbus Dispatch back in 2013. “There are more memories for me in Cleveland than probably any other place on earth. When I go up there, I can’t turn around without being struck by the thought of something from the past. There are a lot of ghosts up there for me.”

And, if you watched the NFL Network documentary on Brown in their series, “A Football Life,” you would have also heard Mike talk about how crushed his father was about his firing. The two had a phone conversation where Mike heard his father cry for one of the only times in his life. “They took my team away from me,” Paul told his son.

Fast forward to more recent years and the “Battle of Ohio” has lost some of its luster. Though the Bengals have had more regular season success than the Browns have since their 1999 re-inception, both teams have still been sitting home watching other teams hoist the Lombardi Trophy year after year. Excitement isn’t very high going into this particular Sunday either, as both teams sit at 0-3.

One of the notches in Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis’ belt in his 15-year tenure is his success against the Browns. Still, in what is looking like a second consecutive year of disappointing results, this game looms large for the rest of the team’s 2017 season, as well as his long-term future with the franchise.

Lewis has an interesting way to show week-to-week “improvement” in his football team. After two initial weeks of a sluggish offense, the head coach decided to make Ken Zampese the sacrificial lamb. It seemed to be a good move, however, as Bill Lazor engineered two first-half touchdowns against Green Bay.

Yet, in typical Bengals fashion, they couldn’t put together a solid performance from each of the three units. The defense netted six sacks, but crumbled down the stretch against Aaron Rodgers, while the special teams unit left three points on the field and Lazor’s offense sputtered in the second half.

But, oh, those pesky “adjustments,” right, Marv?

Finishing games and holding leads against quality teams haven’t been fortes of the Bengals under Lewis, whereas some inexplicable crunch-time errors seem to be more frequent than are seen from other supposedly-talented teams. The broken record has gotten stale.

One problem presenting itself for the Bengals this week is the nimble nature of Browns rookie quarterback, DeShone Kizer. Lewis and Paul Guenther have yet to come up with a consistently successful scheme for mobile quarterbacks—especially those they haven’t seen before.

The former Notre Dame gunslinger has just three touchdown passes against seven interceptions this year, but he has over five yards per carry and two rushing scores as well. While the pass rush seems to have returned in Cincinnati this year, the defensive line will also need to contain Kizer in the pocket and force him to make throwing mistakes.

And, while Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson have had nice starts to their pro careers, it appears the Browns will be getting the most promising pass-rusher of the 2017 NFL Draft, Myles Garrett, back this week. Right guard Trey Hopkins looks unlikely to play this week, and Lazor brought Andre Smith in at right tackle with more struggles from Jake Fisher, so it could be feast time for the No. 1 overall pick.

Still, if Lazor is to continue some of the decent momentum from his first game as the team’s offensive coordinator, he’ll need to get Andy Dalton into an early rhythm to build his confidence. The best way to achieve this is by continuing to give their most talented weapons the football.

For the second straight game, Lazor is likely to be without John Ross and Tyler Eifert, so the trio of running backs and A.J. Green will need to be the focal points of the game plan. And, Dalton will need to make the proper reads when his guys are open, which has been a struggle through the first three games.

Who is returning to the Bengals’ lineup is Vontaze Burfict, back from a three-game suspension. While the defense has largely been carrying the weight this year, getting him back and shadowing Kizer will likely be something Paul Guenther will be relying on this Sunday.

This game has the potential to either be a blowout in the Bengals’ favor, or one that will continue to bring frustrations for The Queen City faithful. Since the Bengals like to take the most baby of steps towards progress, I’ll let my score prediction this week reflect that, as well as a result that coach Lew seems to gravitate towards. Yeah, this is me being cynical.

Bengals 23, Browns 23

AC — Is it “Sink for Sam Darnold” time, yet?