With every team in the AFC North having a record above .500, Thursday night’s battle of Ohio is a big one. The Browns sitting at a surprising 5-3 record go to take on the Bengals who are currently in the division lead at 5-2-1. This is a huge game for the Browns playoff chances in an improved AFC. The easier part of their schedule is over, so it could be tough to get a run going later in the year.
After a rough game against the Jaguars which led fans to start clamoring for Johnny Manziel, Brian Hoyer has led the Browns to two consecutive wins. Considering that his two best weapons in Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron are either suspended or hurt, Hoyer is doing fairly well. While a completion percentage under 60 can be concerning, Hoyer has been able to limit turnovers throwing only four interceptions compared to ten touchdowns.
The Browns leading receiver is former Bengal Andrew Hawkins. Hawkins doesn’t have the size of your typical wideout, but is extremely quick and dangerous in space. Hawkins is currently questionable to play, but if he does should lead all Browns players in targets. Another receiver to watch is rookie Taylor Gabriel. While similar in stature to Hawkins, Gabriel has made up for it with big plays averaging over 19 yards a catch. He and Hoyer have had a nice connection the past few weeks, so it will be interesting to see if that continues.
The Browns running game was highly effective at the beginning of the year. However, that has tailed off since Alex Mack went down for the season with an injury. Ben Tate still figures to be the lead back for the Browns but in his last three games he has combined for just 65 yards. Due to this, look for the rookie duo of Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell see some touches. While they have been inconsistent in terms of game to game usages, West figures to see more work tonight.
On offense, the Bengals figure to exploit the Browns struggling run defense in order to open up the pass. Andy Dalton has been solid this year, but with Hue Jackson now calling the shots the team is placing more emphasis on the run. Fortunately for Dalton, his top weapon in A.J. Green returned last week. Green wasn’t playing as much as usual due to his nagging toe injury, but he was still effective last week against the Jaguars. Tonight, Green should see plenty of Joe Haden who after early season struggles, has really turned it on in recent weeks. If there is one matchup to watch in this game, that is probably the one.
The biggest development for the Bengals offense this season has been the rise of third year receiver Mohamed Sanu. Sanu was forced into the starting role when Marvin Jones was hurt in training camp and hasn’t looked back. For the year, he has 628 yards and four touchdowns and held his own as the number one option with Green out. If Haden shadows Green for the whole game, Sanu will have matchups that he should be able to exploit. With Giovani Bernard already ruled out, the Browns will see a heavy dosage of Jeremy Hill. The rookie running back made his first career start last week and impressed with 154 yards and two touchdowns. Hill has very good vision and for a bigger back has deceptive speed. It wouldn’t be the least surprising if he had another huge game.
While the stakes are higher than usual, this game has a clear winner to me looking based on the matchup. The Bengals have the personnel to capitalize on the Browns weaknesses on both lines. Whether it is Geno Atkins getting to Hoyer or Hill running 20 plus times, the Bengals should rule the trenches. In the end, that is enough to make the difference for me. My prediction is Browns 17 Bengals (-6.5) 26.