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Way-too-early schedule predictions: Bengals at Browns

Cincinnati’s first matchup with Cleveland could very well be without Deshaun Watson taking the field.

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Cleveland Browns Offseason Workout Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

When examining the Cincinnati Bengals’ 2022 schedule, there may not be a harder matchup to project than the two AFC North clashes with the Cleveland Browns.

If everyone for the Browns is a go, then they’re easily one of the toughest teams in the NFL. Not to mention they’ve had the Bengals’ number recently, even with Joe Burrow at quarterback.

However, the man that’s elevated Cleveland from fringe playoff contender to legit Super Bowl threat is Deshaun Watson.

By now, you know all about the blockbuster trade Cleveland made with the Houston Texans to acquire Watson, who last played in 2020 when he had an elite 92.5 Pro Football Focus grade. When healthy, he’s one of the game’s best and an NFL MVP candidate.

However, Watson is now facing a growing number of civil lawsuits from women accusing him of inappropriate sexual conduct during massage sessions, and the details are disturbingly graphic.

While we may be a long way from these cases being settled, the NFL will reportedly make a decision on Watson’s potential punishment before the 2022 season.

Given everything that we know about Watson’s issues, I’m going to project him to be suspended for at least eight games. In that event, he won’t be playing in Week 8, which then makes this a game the Bengals badly need to win given how challenging the rest of the schedule is.

If Watson is out (my guess is he is), I’m projecting Jacoby Brissett to be the starter, even though Baker Mayfield is still on the roster but is likely to be gone before the 2022 season begins.

Even with Brissett at quarterback, the Browns have enough firepower to beat the Bengals, especially in the friendly confines of FirstEnergy Stadium.

They already have arguably the best backfield duo there is in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt behind arguably a top-five offensive line.

When healthy, Amari Cooper, who Cleveland traded for this offseason, is one of the game’s best wideouts and a lock for 1,000+ yards if he plays every game.

The Browns also have a top-10 defense led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Myles Garrett, who has 5.5 sacks in his last four matchups with Cincinnati. This will be a monster test for the Bengals’ revamped offensive line, especially with Jadeveon Clowney lining up opposite of Garrett.

ESPN FPI: Bengals have a 58.3% chance to win, though this is likely if Deshaun Watson plays.

My prediction if Watson is out: Bengals 27, Browns 17

How do you see this matchup playing out? Sound off!