For 25 years, "The Battle of Ohio" has held little relevance.
Cleveland has already handed Cincinnati a loss in 2013, and on the weekend, the Browns will hope to be the first team to beat the Bengals at home this season.
There's no overstating just how important this game could be as we march toward the postseason.
The Browns are 2-1 in the AFC North, while the Bengals trail at 1-2 despite having a better overall record.
After back-to-back losses, Cincinnati needs a win on Sunday to stop the rot before it heads into its bye week.
So how do the Bengals get things going against a Browns team that shocked them just a few weeks ago?
Protect Andy Dalton
The Baltimore Ravens defense brought more than a heavy dose of pressure last week. Don't forget that the Bengals offensive line has been one of the best units in the league this year. But they couldn't handle the Ravens. There's little doubt that Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton will try to replicate that success.
Andy Dalton doesn't fare well when he's rattled, and the Bengals need to give him as much time as possible to throw the ball. They might struggle to do so with Kevin Zeitler, Kyle Cook and to a lesser extent Andrew Whitworth all banged up. Cleveland's defense is a formidable group that also had a week off to rest.
Dalton will be prepared to play under pressure this time around. If the offensive line can keep him upright, he should put enough points on the board to secure a win.
Rally Behind Vontaze Burfict
Former undrafted free agent Vontaze Burfict has had a meteoric rise since joining the Bengals. He's gone from unwanted to indispensable in two seasons, and right now he's the league's top tackler.
With Rey Maualuga sidelined and Geno Atkins on injured reserve, Burfict's presence will be integral to Cincy's success going forward. He's already making a name for himself around the league and is backing it up with his play.
Maualuga had this to say to Bengals.com about his teammate:
Flat out, he’s what you want in a linebacker. One, he’s mean. Two, he can walk the walk and talk the talk. He’s not mean to us, he’s mean to the opponents. He’s a great teammate.
The Bengals defense needs someone to rally behind on Sunday against Cleveland. The defense also needs someone to plug the holes in its banged-up ship and pick up the key tackles. Burfict is that man.
Run the Ball
The Bengals run game was supposed to be spectacular in 2013. With Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis working in tandem, the Bengals were going to run wild.
Skip forward to today, and Cincinnati is 18th in the rushing standings. It's not exactly the triumphant return to the run that we were expecting, especially with Hue Jackson at the helm.
But there is reason for optimism. Bernard learned a lot from being frequently stuffed by the Ravens. It's likely that his run in the game's final moments has been thoroughly dismantled in meeting rooms this week. Rest assured that he'll be eager to bounce back.
Meanwhile, Green-Ellis had four 100-plus-yard performances in the final six games of 2012. He's not being asked to do as much this year, and as a result, he's playing better. That could put him in an even better position to finish strong these next few weeks.
It won't be easy for either runner, according to Joe Reedy of The Cincinnati Enquirer, who wrote, "Getting the run game going could be a tough task this week. Cleveland comes into the game with the league’s fourth-ranked run defense and has allowed only 3.9 yards per carry."
For me, this game boils down to whether Dalton gets adequate time to throw the ball. He will get the same amount of defensive pressure that he experienced in Baltimore. The question is whether he can stay calm and make the necessary throws.
Bengals win, 30-24
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