The undefeated 7-0 Cincinnati Bengals host the 2-6 Cleveland Browns on "Thursday Night Football," with the Bengals looking to continue their best start in franchise history. Last week was one of their toughest tests to date, as they overcame a fourth-quarter deficit and multiple turnovers to pull out a 16-10 win over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Bengals are firmly in the driver's seat in the AFC North, having beaten both the Steelers and Ravens on the road. Now they have a chance to take another step toward the division crown by taking on the injury-plagued Browns.
The Browns have shown flashes of potential on offense this season, with a passing game ranked ninth in the NFL. But their defense has been ravaged with injuries, as starting defensive backs Joe Haden and Donte Whitner will miss this game because of concussions. That doesn't bode well for a defense that is facing one of the best passing offenses in the league. To make matters worse, starting quarterback Josh McCown also has been ruled out with a rib injury, which means Johnny Manziel will make just his fourth career start.
Still, nothing's given in the hard-nosed AFC North and this should be a hard-fought game, at least at the outset.
Cleveland at Cincinnati
Kickoff: 8:25 p.m. ET (Thursday)
TV: NFL Network
Spread: Bengals -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Bengals in the Spotlight
Yes, the Bengals are 7-0 and have some impressive victories against quality opponents, but any praise for them is always followed by the disclaimer that they struggle in the national spotlight and that none of their regular season wins really matter until they win a playoff game. Well here come the Browns, served up on a nice fat platter, ravaged by injuries and having to travel on a short week, while simultaneously putting most of their team publicly on the trade block. No one will give the Bengals much credit for anything less than a decisive win in this situation, but doing it in front of a national audience could certainly help prove that this team won't wither when the spotlight falls on them.
2. Bengal Offensive Rebound
The Bengals were far from dominant against the Steelers last week, and though that is to be somewhat expected on the road against a rival that knows them well, they'll need to improve their execution, especially on offense. A.J. Green still had 11 catches for 118 yards and a touchdown, but the rest of the offense was quiet. Against the better teams that can take away Green, the Bengals will need to prove they can win without him being the only offensive player producing. The Browns aren't the team to take away Green, but a re-dedication to balance will start getting this team ready for their bigger tests coming down the road.
3. Can Johnny Football Save Their Season?
Josh McCown had an excellent first half against the Cardinals last week, throwing three touchdowns and looking primed to pull off an upset, but sustained a rib injury and will not play against the Bengals. Once again all eyes turn to Johnny Manziel, who showed improvement the first two weeks of the season. At 2-6 the Browns' season is likely already over, but with back-to-back trips to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh before their late bye, there's still a chance to have an impact in the division, and perhaps Manziel can get things started against the Bengals. The Browns have shown flashes all season, but just haven't been able to put it all together and finish off any of the good teams that they've stuck with. This might be their last chance to prove 2015 isn't just another forgettable season and it will ride on their former first-round pick.
The Bengals are undefeated and confident, but still looking for the national respect that the other undefeated teams in the AFC are getting. Barring a double-digit blowout, they're probably not going to get that respect in this game, but they still have many things to improve if they're to challenge the Patriots and Broncos to be the AFC Super Bowl representative, so no game can be taken lightly. Too much is stacked against the Browns, including injuries and the short week to prepare. All signs point to the Bengals rolling.