Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals (-5.5, 44 o/u)
Coming into the season, no one would have thought that every team in the AFC North would be over .500 at the mid-way point. What would have seemed even less plausible: the division lead being at stake in a week 10 matchup between the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals.
But, here we are, with the Browns at 5-3, the Bengals at 5-2-1, and the AFC North lead on the line on Thursday Night Football (8:30 p.m. Eastern).
Cleveland is one of the league’s biggest surprises, especially with unheralded quarterback Brian Hoyer at the helm. Hoyer and the Browns have been inconsistent all season, but the good has outweighed the bad, and they are set up nicely for a playoff push.
“(The NFL) definitely (knows) about the Cleveland Browns,” said Browns safety Tashaun Gipson, who leads the NFL with six interceptions. “They take the Browns seriously. They have no choice. You don’t win five games by mistake.”
“If we want to win the AFC North, we’re going to have to beat Cincinnati and this is our first opportunity,” added offensive tackle Joe Thomas. “The stage is a little bit bigger because it’s the Thursday night game. You’re the only game on TV.”
The Browns have won two straight, but not in convincing fashion. They triumphed over winless Oakland in week 8 and edged out one-win Tampa Bay in week 9, both in Cleveland. The players know that the Bengals are a different beast.
“This will be the best opponent we’ve played in a few games so it will certainly be a good measuring stick.”
The Bengals have also won two straight games but, more importantly, have star receiver A.J. Green back from injury. Green’s presence last week added an entirely new dimension to the Bengals’ offense. With the Jaguars defense forced to focus on Green and Mohammed Sanu out wide, rookie running back Jeremy Hill stole the show, running for 154 yards and two touchdowns (in relief of an injured Giovani Bernard).
“We know he’s that kind of player,” said Sanu of Hill.
With Bernard out for a second straight game, the Bengals will count on Hill to carry the ground game again, and Hill could be poised for another big night: the Browns are second worst in the league against the run, giving up 140 yards per game. The Bengals aren’t much better, surrendering 139; but the Browns have more of a running-back-by-committee approach and lack the game-breaking talent that Hill demonstrated last weekend during his 60-yard TD scamper. (The Browns have three players with at least 50 carries – Ben Tate, Terrance West, and Isaiah Crowell – but none of them have a carry longer than 30 yards this season.)
Cincinnati is currently a 5.5-point favorite for tonight’s game. The over/under is at 44.
(Photo credit: emeybee (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)