It's an AFC North tilt as the Cincinnati Bengals host the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. It's the teams' second meeting this season, as Cleveland won 35-30 at home in Week 2. The Browns put up 215 rushing yards in that game, as Baker Mayfield played the role of game manager, going 16-for-23 for 219 yards and two touchdowns. Joe Burrow was 37-for-61 for 316 yards and three touchdowns for the Bengals. The No. 1 overall pick from LSU also was sacked three times and committed one turnover in the loss.
Cleveland has to be smarting a bit after getting outclassed by the Steelers 38-7 last week in Pittsburgh. Not much went right for the Browns in Myles Garrett's first game against the Steelers since the helmet-swinging incident last year. Mayfield threw two interceptions in the loss and gave way to Case Keenum. The defense didn't exactly help either, giving up 129 rushing yards. Still, Cleveland sits 4-2 with both of those losses coming on the road.
Meanwhile, Burrow played really well last against Indianapolis and the Bengals led 21-0 early in the second quarter. But the Colts got their act together, put the clamps on Cincinnati's offense, and scored the final 10 points to come away with the 31-27 victory. The Bengals showed plenty of the offensive spunk many expected this young team to have, but their defense permitted Philip Rivers to throw the ball over the field, fueling Indianapolis' rally. Another positive to take from the loss was the play of the offensive line, which held up pretty well (two sacks allowed) against one of the league's top defenses.
Cleveland at Cincinnati
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 25 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Browns -3.5
Three Things to Watch
This is the second straight road game for the Browns, who are 1-2 away from home. There's also got to be some mental baggage after getting blasted by the Steelers in a game that was hyped up by pretty much everyone. Odell Beckham Jr. was frustrated on the sidelines last week and there's a chance that the players and coaches aren't all on the same page on Sunday. They do not have a look-ahead spot though with a home contest against the Raiders up next. On the other side, I expect a focused Bengals team after letting last week's huge lead get away and wanting to split the season series with their AFC North rival. Cincinnati hosts Tennessee next after playing four of five on the road.
2. Running games
Joe Mixon can be such a weapon for Cincinnati because he can do it on the ground and through the air. In the Bengals' lone win (Week 4 vs. Jacksonville), Mixon ran 151 yards and two touchdowns while also chipping in with six receptions and another score. But Cincinnati must make do without Mixon on Sunday, as he was ruled out Friday by head coach Zac Taylor because of a foot injury suffered last week.
It will not be easy for the Bengals to replace Mixon. This season, when Mixon hasn't been effective as a runner, the offense has been one-dimensional, which puts more pressure on Joe Burrow, as well as the offensive line to protect the rookie quarterback. He has been sacked 24 times in 246 dropbacks, which is not a great percentage. He also has thrown four interceptions compared to six touchdowns. In Mixon's absence, Giovanni Bernard, Samaje Perine and Trayveon Williams will likely share the carries. Bernard is averaging 3.7 yards per carry while Perine and Williams have combined for one rushing attempt thus far.
Meanwhile, Cleveland's ground attack needs to get back on track after a poor effort in Pittsburgh. Nick Chubb (sprained MCL) still isn't back yet so Kareem Hunt will continue to serve as the lead back. He's averaging 4.7 yards per carry and has scored six total touchdowns (3 rushing, 3 receiving). You can run on the Bengals (142.3 ypg, 27th in NFL), so we'll see how committed the Browns are to doing that on Sunday.
3. Cooking with Mayfield
Baker Mayfield has to bounce back after last week's 119-yard passing effort. He's actually thrown for less than 200 yards four times already this season and has had four interceptions over his last two games. He doesn't seem to be 100 percent healthy as he continues to deal with a rib injury. Combine that with the frustrations he feels at times over bad passes and he's not in a good place right now. It doesn't help when his wide receivers are griping on the sidelines either. It would behoove the Browns to give Mayfield some easy throws early on to give him confidence. Cincinnati doesn't have a fearsome pass rush (10 sacks) and isn't on the same level as some of the other defenses Mayfield has faced already (Ravens, Steelers, Colts even Washington), but the Bengals have said some success against the pass (61.5 completion rate allowed, 6 INTs), so he still needs to be on his game to put Cleveland in the best position to win.
It does not help the Bengals that Joe Mixon is not going to play in this game, but I have some faith in Gio Bernard to do what he has to in order to keep teams honest. I'm confident that Cleveland is still a mess and should still struggle in this one. Give me the home team in the upset. I'm not buying the Browns this season and think the problems continue.
Prediction: Bengals 24, Browns 20
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.