On Halloween night, the Browns handed the Bengals their most embarrassing loss of the 2022 NFL season. Six weeks later, Cincinnati has a chance to redeem itself when the AFC North rivals meet again on Sunday afternoon — against a new quarterback.
All four of Cincinnati's losses this season have come by one score, with the exception of a 32-13 thumping the Browns gave them in Week 8. Cleveland out-gained Cincy 440-229 as the Bengals rushed for a season-low 36 yards and Jacoby Brissett passed for a season-high 12.6 yards per attempt.
This week, though, Deshaun Watson will be under center. Watson is a far more talented passer than Brissett, but he looked every bit the part of a quarterback who hadn't played a regular-season game in 700 days, after his 11-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy following more than two dozen sexual assault allegations ended.
Which Watson shows up in Cincinnati will go a long way in determining how much of a chance the Browns have in this game — and the rest of the season. Cleveland is just two games out of the final wild-card spot but also has to leapfrog the Patriots, Chargers, and Raiders.
The Bengals, meanwhile, control their own destiny in the AFC North, where they're tied with the Ravens for first place. Baltimore currently has the tiebreaker, but they're set to meet in a potentially pivotal Week 18 game.
The stakes are clear in this game as both teams look to improve their playoff position. Can the Browns pull off another big win in this rivalry? Or will the Bengals even up the Battle for Ohio on home turf?
Cleveland (5-7) at Cincinnati (8-4)
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Deshaun Watson be more up to speed?
To say that Watson looked rusty last week would be an understatement. Against a familiar Texans defense that ranks 24th with 6.6 net yards allowed per passing attempt, he went just 12-of-22 for 131 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.
The underlying stats were disappointing as well. Watson had a 28.6 percent bad-throw rate, which was his third-highest mark in 48 starts. And that came while only being pressured 12.5 percent of the time (fifth-lowest).
The Browns did play it cautiously with Watson, whose 6.3 intended air yards per completion were the third-lowest figure of his career. But they're going to have to take more chances when facing off against a high-powered Bengals offense — especially since you can't count on three defensive/special teams touchdowns like last week.
One problem, though: two of Watson's top three receivers, Amari Cooper (hip) — who racked up 131 yards and a touchdown on five catches in their previous game — and rookie David Bell (hand) missed practice this week. Both are expected to play, but they are unlikely to be at 100 percent. Watson will just have to find a way.
2. How do you stop Joe Burrow?
Teams have been asking themselves this question for a while now. The Steelers figured him out in Week 1 when he threw four interceptions, but since then he's completing more than 70 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns to four picks.
The Chiefs threw the book at him last week and couldn't stop him with man or zone defense. Burrow was particularly efficient against zone, completing 14 of 15 passes for 162 yards. Cleveland has leaned heavily on zone defense this season; through Week 12, they were in man just 22.6 percent of the time, ninth lowest in the league.
The Browns found success against Burrow in their last matchup by limiting him to short passes (5.7 IAY/PA). But with Ja'Marr Chase now back from his hip injury, the Bengals should be expected to push the ball more.
Making matters worse for Cleveland is that the Browns don't bring a ton of pressure (18.9 percent, 26th) and haven't forced many turnovers (five interceptions, seven fumbles). There just isn't much margin for error against this potent Bengals offense that is averaging 297 passing yards per game since the Week 10 bye.
3. Can Cincinnati slow Cleveland's rushing attack?
The Browns aren't totally out of it if Watson puts up another stinker — they do have a top-five rushing attack with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Cleveland picked up 172 yards and three touchdowns on 44 attempts in their win over Cincinnati, but it won't be that easy this time around.
Unlike last game, the Bengals will have defensive tackle D.J. Reader, one of the most underrated defenders in the league. As an illustration of his impact, the Bengals have held opponents to 93.5 rushing yards per game in the six games he's played, with a single-game high of 138 yards. In his absence, teams are averaging 135.2 yards per contest.
Still, this remains a weak run-stopping defense that ranks 30th in run stop win rate (27 percent). They've done a good job of limiting big runs — they are fifth in Football Outsiders' open field yards metric — but have the propensity to get gashed for moderate gains. Will that be enough to keep the Browns' offense afloat?
Perhaps this game would look different in a few weeks when Watson is more up to speed, but this line seems low, especially with the Bengals at home. Cincinnati's offense is clicking on all cylinders and is unlikely to take its foot off the gas, even against a weaker opponent, with first place in the division potentially on the line.
Prediction: Bengals 31, Browns 20
*Price as of publication.