The Cleveland Browns will be fighting for first place in the AFC North when they take on the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday. While they cannot move into a tie with the Bengals, they can give them their fifth loss of the season—the same amount the Browns have.
This is one of those benchmark games for a regime. It’s not necessarily a must-win, but it is a barometer of exactly where the Browns stand in the hierarchy of the league. With a win, the Browns would have to be considered a legitimate contender for the divisional crown immediately. They would undoubtedly be playing the best football in the division.
If the Browns were to lose on Sunday, it may be more realistic to look at a wildcard spot as opposed to the AFC North Championship.
The Bengals have faltered the last two weeks and now face a Browns team that has confidence and two weeks of preparation. While the task will be tough, the Browns should be game for this showdown on Sunday in Cincinnati.
If the Browns win, they will hold the tiebreaker over the Bengals should those two teams end the season tied. It would also keep them, at the very worst, one game out of the Wild Card spot in the AFC.
Relevant football is back in Cleveland.
AFC North Standings
The AFC North is wide open this year because no team has played consistent football. The Browns were helped on Sunday by a Hail Mary pass that lifted the Baltimore Ravens over the Bengals. After playing like an All-Pro just a month ago, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has now thrown six interceptions in the last two weeks.
The Steelers snagged their third win of the season over the lowly Buffalo Bills. This was the Steelers most complete game of the season, and I think they will be much tougher than their record indicates down the stretch this season.
OLB Quentin Groves (Ankle) Placed on Injured Reserve Monday, via the Branson Wright of Cleveland.com
QB Jason Campbell (Ribs) Practiced Monday
TE Marques Gray (Hamstring) Did not practice Monday
The loss of Groves is huge. His absence a few weeks ago greatly limited the Browns’ pass rush from the outside linebacker position. He was the perfect complement to Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo and Jabaal Sheard.
The Browns four-linebacker rotation was so effective because it always allowed for there to be one pass-rusher, who rested on third-down situations.
Losing Groves for the year will hurt—there is no doubt about it.
What Must Improve
Defense needs to dominate
The Cleveland Browns have to become a consistently dominant team on the defensive side of the football. It’s as simple as that.
Coaches love to talk about complementary football where all three phases of the game contribute equally, but that is just not the reality. The Browns will only go as far as their defense will take them, and even the players in the locker room know that is the case.
“I’m telling you personally it’s time,” said linebacker D’Qwell Jackson via Nate Ulrich of The Akron-Beacon Journal (video to the right).
In their five losses this season, the Browns are allowing 26 points per game. In their four wins, they are allowing 18.5 points. That is a touchdown difference.
The defense needs to dominate.
Establish a run game
In order for the Browns offense to be consistent, they need to figure out how to run the football. It doesn’t need to be much, just more than what they are currently doing.
Consistency is what gets you to the playoffs, and the only thing the Browns have been consistent at is a terrible run game. They rank 27th in the league with just 3.7 yards per carry. No team that looks to be playoff bound is worse.
The coaching staff had an extra week to weed out plays that were ineffective and add new wrinkles to their scheme. Hopefully they figured out a way to use wide receivers more consistently in the run game.
Wide receivers Josh Gordon, Greg Little and newly signed Armanti Edwards could all be used as runners.
Running back Willis McGahee is just not built to handle the workload of a feature back in the NFL anymore. They should also get a slight boost with running back Chris Ogbonnaya finally being fully recovered from his rib injury.
Maintain their attitude and swagger
This new version of the Cleveland Browns under head coach Rob Chudzinksi doesn’t take any mess from anyone. They fight; they get unsportsmanlike conduct penalties; they hit with the intention to hurt their opponent, but most importantly they are not afraid of anyone.
Those types of penalties can certainly hurt you, but it’s good that the Browns are finally standing their ground. For far too long they were the team that others pushed to the side and stepped on to get to the playoffs. Not anymore.
In fact, the Browns took their game plan straight at the Ravens in their victory before the bye week. They did not try and react to what the Ravens did but instead dictated the pace and tempo of the game.
Chudzinski had his guys going for it on fourth downs, aggressively throwing downfield and blitzing like mad men on defense. It seems as though they may have finally found an identity.
(All quotes and observations were gathered first hand unless otherwise noted)