The fight for the AFC North title is tight, which is no surprise, but the teams currently jockeying for the lead certainly are.
The Cincinnati Bengals (6-4) hold a slim lead over the surprising Cleveland Browns (4-5), who have saved their season with an emerging, suffocating defense and the steady play of quarterback Jason Campbell.
The Bengals, as they are wont to do, cannot establish themselves as a true AFC powerhouse and have thus given a young, hungry team in the Browns hope.
Having lost two games in a row, quarterback Andy Dalton and the offense are out of sync at the wrong time. Dalton has thrown three interceptions in each of the last two games and had one of his worst performance of the year in the Bengals’ 17-6 loss in Cleveland earlier this season. In that game, he was 23 of 42 for 206 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.
With his recent struggles, the Browns’ defense – including a surprisingly stingy secondary – is licking its chops.
Cleveland currently has the fifth-ranked defense in the NFL, yielding only 315.7 yards per game. To the Bengals’ credit, they own the fourth-ranked defense, giving up just 311.4 yards per game. Statistically, the Browns have a better rush defense (98.2 yards to 102) and the Bengals have the better pass defense (209.4 to 217.4).
In other words, it’s going to be a slugfest.
The difference might be that the Browns, despite having the 26th-ranked rush offense at 81.6 yards per game, are a confident group when the ball is in their hands. That is to say, it doesn’t feel like the sky is falling when Campbell has the ball.
He has been an effective if unspectacular quarterback, but it’s obvious the Browns’ offense has a fluidity to it when he’s out there managing the game. His poise could be the difference in this one.
The Bengals are favored by less than a touchdown (-6).
The Browns have won just one away game this season, a 31-27 victory in Minnesota when Brian Hoyer was their quarterback. The Bengals, on the other hand, play extremely well at home, already defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and New York Jets in the friendly confines of Paul Brown Stadium.
The Browns are another major home test for the Bengals, who are desperately trying to avoid a downward spiral into oblivion. Cleveland, though young and inexperienced when it comes to playoff chases, is feeling confident coming out of its bye week.
As always, the key matchup of the day will be between Browns cornerback Joe Haden and Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. Green was held to only 51 yards on seven catches in the first go-around of 2013, but Green has topped 100 yards in five straight games.
The Bengals will be looking to make a statement that they belong at the top of the AFC North. With the Browns trying to establish credibility and the Ravens and Steelers sludging their way through rough seasons, the Bengals have a prime opportunity to create some breathing room in the divisional race.
Cincinnati’s defense gets the job done and the Bengals’ offense snaps out of its mini-funk in a 17-14 victory over the Browns.