In the tightly packed AFC North, every game is vitally important, particularly when it comes against a division foe. The division could earn as many as three playoff births or be limited to one. The Bengals and Browns are both in search of the automatic bid that comes with a division title, and the winner of their week 15 game will be one step closer to that goal.
Neither squad has had any post-season success recently. Cincinnati has made it to the playoffs the last three years, but has yet to win a playoff game during Marvin Lewis’s tenure. In fact, the Bengals have not won a playoff game since 1990. Cleveland, on the other hand, is pursuing its first postseason bid since 2002. If the Browns make it, they’ll be looking for their first playoff win since 1994.
In week 10, these teams met on Thursday Night Football. The Browns became the first team to win in Cincinnati since December 2012, drubbing the Bengals 24-3 and demolishing the spread as 5.5-point dogs. It was Cleveland’s first victory on the road against a divisional opponent since 2008, snapping a 17-game losing streak. The Browns played well in all aspects of the game, but can thank four Bengal turnovers for the lop-sided win. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton went just 10/33 for 86 yards and three picks. The Bengals were three of 17 on third down and averaged a minuscule 2.6 yards per play. Prior to that game, Cincinnati had won five of its last seven against Cleveland. Now the Bengals have lost three of four.
The Bengals are 4-2 on the road and 3-3 against the spread. They’ve won three straight away from home beating New Orleans (27-10), Houston (22-13), and Tampa Bay (14-13) in weeks 11 through 13. Cincinnati opened the year with a road win at Baltimore before getting stomped at New England in week 5 and at Indianapolis in week 7. The Bengals host Denver on Monday night in week 16 and finish the regular season with a trip to Pittsburgh. On the whole, Dalton has played better on the road this season than at home, though the New England and Indy games were duds for the entire Bengals team.
Cleveland has played a relatively easy slate of games this season, one that is conducive to making the playoffs. Like all of their division rivals, crossing over with the NFC South has been rewarding. The Browns are 3-0 against the worst division in the NFL and still have Carolina on the schedule. After a week 4 bye, the Browns went 5-1 over their next six, posting wins over Tennessee, Oakland, and Tampa Bay in addition to victories against divisional opponents Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Their only loss over that stretch was a brutal 24-6 defeat at the hands of the Jaguars.
A big key for Cleveland this season has been its top-ten pass defense; the strong secondary play has been particularly important in light of the Browns’ struggles stopping the run.
Next week, the Bengals have another pivotal divisional game against Pittsburgh, while the Browns host Indianapolis. Inevitably, the Browns must hope for the 7-5 Steelers to beat Cincy in week 14. If they do, and the Browns get a win over Indy, then the winner of this week 15 clash would likely lead the division with just two games to go.