Every dog has their day, as the saying goes. For the Cleveland Browns, that time has seemingly come after eons of agony.
After 20 seasons, a revolving door of both head coaches and quarterbacks, as well as a laundry list of big-name failed draft picks, the Browns finally seem to be headed in the right direction. This turn for the better is under a No. 1 overall pick in Baker Mayfield and a fill-in head coach, but things are looking far less gloomy than they have for the past two decades.
Maybe we’re utilizing a bit of hyperbole here, as we’re describing a simple 6-7-1 team with minute playoff chances at the moment, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen this kind of swagger from the boys in orange and brown.
Mayfield mania has hit Lake Erie, as the No. 1 overall pick looks like the real deal after taking over as the team’s starting quarterback in Week 4. It’s hard to feel sorry for the Browns in this respect though, as they’ve had a pretty successful track record of finding capable signal-callers since their 1999 re-inception into the NFL.
(That’s sarcasm, folks.)
Mayfield has used the bravado of Johnny Manziel, combined with the unconventional, yet big-play style of Bernie Kosar to keep the Browns’ playoff hopes alive into Week 16. Those ended up dissipating on Saturday night, but one can point to the apex of Mayfield’s confidence hitting just a few short weeks ago against the Bengals, regardless.
The tables made a swift and dramatic turn in the rivalry this year, though. Almost a decade and a half ago, it was Chad Johnson publicly announcing that he had sent bottles of Pepto-Bismol to the members of Cleveland’s secondary, as a remedy for their nauseated tummies they’d receive while watching Ochocinco torch their defense. It was around this time that Cincinnati began to take hold of the “Battle of Ohio” once again—this time under Marvin Lewis’ watch.
But, earlier this season, safeties Jabrill Peppers and Damarious Randall were doing the talking. And, in what’s been a rare occasion in this incarnation of Browns football, the dawgs did the walking.
What has ensued for both teams has truly been a tale of two seasons.
All of a sudden, the Browns have gotten mouthy and flippant—particularly towards the Bengals. Randall intercepted a Dalton pass and intentionally eschewed a big return so that he could toss the ball to Hue Jackson.
Cleveland destroyed the Bengals back in Week 12, to the tune of 35-20. The disaster all but cemented Cincinnati’s third consecutive playoff-less season, as Andy Dalton not only played poorly, but was lost for the year with a thumb injury he suffered in the defeat.
Mayfield also decided to go scorched Earth on Jackson, whom he blames for...uh...finding employment once again, I guess? This year’s first overall pick was so steamed at Jackson that he called him “fake” a few weeks ago.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati attempted to make an unlikely postseason run of their own with Jeff Driskel as their starting quarterback and Tyler Boyd as their new No. 1 receiver. A.J. Green wasn’t suiting up, which was the fuel of the “ass-kicking” comments from Peppers and Randall. It hasn’t worked as the team now stares at the possibility of a very Lewis-like 8-8-type of campaign.
Cleveland has found the aforementioned sense of confidence they haven’t had since a young coach named Bill Belichick roamed their sidelines. Much of it is on Mayfield, but interim coach Gregg Williams also deserves a tip of the cap, as he has a 4-2 record in relief of Jackson.
Each passing week, it gets more and more difficult to decipher players that the Bengals field. This week, the receiving corps may very well be spearheaded by guys like Josh Malone, Cody Core and Alex Erickson.
Vontaze Burfict might finally be back this week after leaving the Week 13 contest against the Broncos early, but a slew of undrafted players will likely be surrounding him in the group. Joe Mixon has recently joined the injury report, with the hopes that he won’t be joining Dalton, Green, Boyd and Tyler Eifert as part of the walking wounded on offense.
In short, it looks like the Bengals will be employing many backups and, well, backups to the backups in this rematch of “The Battle of Ohio”. Even with the Browns players free to make vacation plans in January, the two teams seem to be going in very different directions.
And, that statement in itself is a doozy to pen. As Cincinnati is also “playing for pride” and sorting out the future of their roster these next two weeks, the Browns are heartbroken after being eliminated from playoff contention after Saturday night’s results. They had their eyes on the postseason in the wake of a very winnable division and weak overall AFC conference this year, only to have the rug pulled out from under them with the Ravens defeating the Chargers this weekend.
That’s part of the big shame of 2018 with the Bengals. Poor player development, injuries and some recent draft busts aside, Cincinnati had a viable shot at the division this year with a 4-1 start that seems like it was a generation ago.
Pittsburgh is severely inconsistent, while Baltimore plays a style of offense that screams “flash-in-the-pan”. The Browns are scrappy, but should they reach an 8-7-1 record, it still would come just short of a postseason berth.
Still, it will only point to another big missed opportunity by Lewis’ Bengals this year. Such is the case with most of Ohio football, right?
Speaking of Lewis, these next two games against Cleveland and Pittsburgh to end the season could be critical in his future with the Bengals. Some believe that the front office has already made a decision on Lewis, and there is merit to that stance, but it’s far from definitive.
When Lewis was brought back on a new contract last January, owner Mike Brown noted the two wins against potential playoff teams to end the 2017 season as a reason for bringing him back. And, one of those was against the division rival Ravens.
Given the history between the Brown family and Cleveland, a win from Lewis to knock the Browns out of the playoffs could bring new life to the coaching discussion within the front office.
Regardless, Cincinnati may have been able to get by against the Raiders at home with a severely depleted roster, but it will be a much tougher task this week. They’re on the road and even more key guys (at least the ones that are left) could be missing against the Browns.
A sweep of Cincinnati by Cleveland would be the first since 2002 in the pre-Marvin era. It looks quite likely to happen again this year.
Wouldn’t that just be fitting on so many levels?
Bengals 13, Browns 20