Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals (-6.5, 44.5 o/u)
There’s something funny happening with the Cleveland Browns (5-3, 1-2 away). They have looked dismal at times, but have also won two games in a row and, halfway through the season, continue to be in the hunt for, not only a playoff spot, but a division title.
While it would be easy to write off the Browns’ record as the product of weak competition (the combined record of the teams they have beaten is 13-28), this is a squad that decimated the Pittsburgh Steelers three weeks ago – the same Pittsburgh Steelers that have torn up the league ever since. Up next for the Browns is a clash for first place in the AFC North with the division-leading Bengals (5-2-1, 4-0-1 home). The Browns know this will be a step up in competition from their last two games against the Raiders and Buccaneers.
“They’re a good team, and one hallmark of good teams is that they win at home,” said Browns tackle Joe Thomas, who sadly hasn’t experienced what it’s like to consistently win at home during his hall of fame-worthy career. “If we want to win the AFC North, we’re going to have to beat Cincinnati.
“This is our first opportunity. The stage is a little bit bigger because it’s the Thursday night game. You’re the only game on TV. This will be the best opponent we’ve played in a few games so it will certainly be a good measuring stick.”
The Browns have been struggling of late running the ball, not to mention giving up big yardage runs on defense. But the Bengals have also been susceptible to opponents’ run games. Both teams are tied for 30th in the league, giving up an average of 139.6 yards on the ground.
Look for the Bengals to, once again, turn to rookie running back Jeremy Hill. Last weekend, the LSU product ran for 154 yards and two TDs against the Jaguars, filling in admirably for the injured Giovani Bernard. Said receiver Mohamed Sanu about Hill, “We know he’s that kind of player.”
Though Bernard is expected to miss one more week, the Bengals got star receiver A.J. Green back last weekend and he showed shades of his Pro Bowl caliber talent. Look for him to be even better on Thursday as his toe continues to heal.
As much as seeing the Browns compete is a good story for the league, this appears to be a rubber meets the road contest; in recent history, the Browns have not fared well in crunch time. That said, on a short week, anything can happen, which is why the Browns money line (+227) could be the best value.
(Photo credit: Erik Drost (Flickr: Joe Haden) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped from its original.)