The Cincinnati Bengals’ playoff hopes disappeared at Arrowhead Stadium last week, with a crushing loss turning their heads to the offseason. They face the Cleveland Browns this week, with both teams potentially resting a number of players, as both teams head in different winter directions.
We had another chat with Chris Pokorny over at SB Nation’s Dawgs by Nature to preview Week 18. Here’s our side of the chat.
1.) AC: Talk to me about the quarterbacks in Cleveland. They’ve started a handful, with Joe Flacco coming to the rescue in a big way at the end of the year. It appears as if he’s been a little more of a gunslinger than his days with the Ravens, is that accurate? What has Kevin Stefanski done with Flacco, game plan-wise, to make him play at one of the highest levels of his career?
CP: What Joe Flacco has done in a short period of time is remarkable. Granted, we both saw him have success in Baltimore for years, but he looks as good as he ever has when it comes to slinging the ball. He sells the play-action pass incredibly well, and it reminds me how many quarterbacks suck at that — the good fakes always buy him more time to throw the ball, and because his arm is so strong, it doesn’t matter that he’s so far back from the line of scrimmage after the fake.
He is quickly recognizing the open man, and I think he has just built some uncanny chemistry with the likes of Amari Cooper and David Njoku that exceeds anything he’s had in his career. One may think, “Oh, it’s only a matter of time before his luck runs out,” but I don’t know about that. Something special is happening with the way he’s been playing, and it’s not of the fluke nature.
2.) AC: The Cleveland defense is one of the best in the NFL. What about its construction do you feel has been the biggest key to its success—defensive front, skilled secondary players drafted, scheme...?
CP: The old “Married With Children” theme song phrase just popped into my head when asked to choose: “...you can’t have one without the...other...” It all stems from an aggressive approach that Jim Schwartz lets these defensive playmakers take.
If the Browns had mediocre personnel, the aggressive approach would lead to opposing teams having a ton of big plays. But the pass rush on the defensive line is a threat, yet quarterbacks can’t just get rid of the ball quickly because all three of the team’s top cornerbacks are solid in man coverage. Then, while the quarterback is trying to process all of that, the linebackers and safety have the freedom to take chances and make a play.
3.) AC: As we cover the Bengals over here, we scramble for answers as to why Cleveland has recently dominated “The Battle of Ohio,” other than “well, it’s Myles Garrett and Nick Chubb” and/or possible personnel mismatches. Do you have further answers to that puzzle and what the Bengals may be able to exploit going forward?
CP: This year, there is more of an explanation, but in previous years, I don’t think there’s a reasonable explanation per se other than, “it is what it is,” lol. I mean, the Browns experienced it for years with the Steelers and Ravens, as it was embarrassing how Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco would have more wins at Browns Stadium than any of our own quarterbacks.
I do think the Bengals’ porous offensive line over the years at times caused some issues; they couldn’t handle it against him as well as they could other teams. But still, the win-loss disparity was a bit crazy.
4.) AC: The Browns have more-than-admirably overcome many injuries to get into the playoffs. Cincinnati battled similar issues only to see the magic run out right before the end of the year, but what is the sense of the type of noise this Cleveland team can make in the postseason with this altered, albeit still-talented roster?
CP: This Browns team can be a serious threat to make the Super Bowl. It all starts with the defense. For all the injuries that Cleveland has had, the defensive side hasn’t been hit as hard, so they can still play their brand of football. In addition, come playoff time, the players who have been banged up (Ogbo Okoronkwo, Grant Delpit, and Anthony Walker) might all be ready to return, which would put them at full strength.
On offense, the injuries have been way more prominent. This Sunday, we’re starting our fifth quarterback of the season. The ground game has been lackluster since Nick Chubb was lost for the season in Week 2. Both starting tackle positions lost their starters, and one of them is on the third guy.
Amari Cooper has a heel injury after setting the franchise record for receiving yards in a game. But, through all of that, Joe Flacco ended up being way better than even Deshaun Watson was playing, the tackle situation has been fairly stable, and Cooper will hopefully be fine for the playoffs. Flacco is now elevating this offense to putting up 30+ points per game, and when you pair that with the defense and the team’s momentum, hopes are high in Cleveland.
5.) AC: DraftKings has this one as the Bengals -4.5. It’s at Paycor Stadium, but we’re not totally sure which players the teams will be trotting out this Sunday. How do you see this one playing out?
CP: It’s at -7 now in favor of the Bengals. It’s always hard to predict these types of games, but since I want to be blindly optimistic, I will predict that the Bengals will have less energy since their season is now “over,” while the Browns’ backups will be fired up to play aggressive with playing time and the chance to make an impression. I’ll go with the Bengals to cover, but the Browns to squeak out a win.
Our thanks to Chris Pokorny for the second go-round in the five questions again this week. Go check out our other side of the chat over at Dawgs By Nature.