The battle of Ohio kicks off Week 2 in the NFL
Joe Burrow. Baker Mayfield. The Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns will feature two of the last three Heisman Trophy winners when they meet to kick off Week 2 of the NFL season on "Thursday Night Football."
But college success doesn't always translate into NFL superstardom. Both men would admit they have a long way to go; add up their Week 1 quarterback ratings (66.1, 65.0) and the total's still far behind reigning MVP Lamar Jackson's 152.1 to start the year. Jackson accomplished that by torching Mayfield's Browns at home, scoring 28 unanswered points in a 38-6 rout that was never close.
Burrow and the Bengals were a little more effective as the first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft made his debut. Down 16-13 in the fourth quarter, the former LSU quarterback calmly led the Bengals down the field twice. The first time ended with Burrow's first career interception on an ill-conceived shovel pass but the second appeared to win the game before wide receiver A.J. Green was called for pass interference in the end zone. A missed 31-yard chip shot field goal followed by Randy Bullock, and, just like that, Burrow's first NFL game ended in defeat.
The good news for both these quarterbacks is one has to come out with a win Thursday night. Can Mayfield show Burrow how to get the job done? Or will the 2019 Heisman winner lead the Bengals to victory in just his second career game in the league?
Thursday Night Football: Cincinnati at Cleveland
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 17 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: NFL Network
Spread: Browns -5.5
Three Things To Watch
1. How will the Cleveland offense recover?
Mayfield, after an uneven 2019, started off 2020 with an interception on his first drive. He wasn't the sole reason for the Browns' struggles, but the team never seemed to fully recover from that mistake. The next possession, the Browns botched a fake punt and suddenly faced a 10-0 deficit against the AFC's best regular-season team last season.
On paper, this team should have one of the league's most dynamic offenses. There's not one but two 1,000-yard rushers in Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb. Odell Beckham Jr. is a Pro Bowl-caliber wide receiver, and Jarvis Landry is a consistent threat in the slot.
So why were the Browns stumbling all over the field in Week 1? Beckham had just three catches on 22 yards despite 10 targets. Chubb fumbled (albeit with the team down 31-6), and Mayfield averaged a measly 4.8 yards per attempt. A team that was fourth in the NFL in penalties last year was sloppy again, costing themselves 80 yards with silly mistakes.
On paper, this group should bounce back. Mayfield tied his season-high with three touchdown passes against Cincinnati on Dec. 29. The problem in that game? He also had three picks as the team lost their regular-season finale 33-23.
When will the Browns get disciplined? If they don't... all this talent is wasted.
2. Will Cincinnati open up the offense for Burrow?
Burrow rushed for his first NFL touchdown last week and looked relatively comfortable in the pocket. However, the Bengals offense played it safe considering their prized draft pick had no preseason games to get comfortable. Burrow's longest completion was for 19 yards, and he averaged just 5.4 yards per attempt. He did miss a couple of deep connections, most notably to John Ross III in what could have become the winning touchdown.
No deep passes this week would be a losing strategy against a Browns secondary decimated by injuries. Kevin Johnson and Greedy Williams were among the cornerbacks sidelined in Week 1; rookie safety Grant Delpit is already lost for the season. The Ravens and Jackson took advantage, going 20-for-25 to a so-so group of wide receivers who ran their routes relatively unchallenged.
The Bengals have weapons that can be dangerous if let loose. Green, a seven-time Pro Bowler, caught five passes for 51 yards and looked healthy despite returning to the practice field just three days ago. Ross has the ability to go deep. And a 1-2 punch of Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon gives them pass-catching speed in the backfield.
Will Burrow get more aggressive? And can he avoid the rookie mistakes if he does so? Your belief in him is probably the most important piece of what side you land on in this game.
3. Whose kicking game will get it together first?
The Bengals watched in horror Sunday as Bullock's left leg cramped up on his 31-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds. The miss came at the worst possible time, ending a streak of 24 consecutive field goal makes inside 40 yards.
Bullock, in his fourth season kicking for the Bengals, has been a decent player on a bad team (he hit 27-of-31 field goal attempts overall last year and drilled a 50-yard field goal Sunday against the Chargers). However, that type of last-second failure can haunt a kicker if they're not able to get over the mental hurdles associated with whiffing in the clutch.
A handful of NFL experts on Twitter seemed to suggest Bullock even faked his injury, a charge the kicker vehemently denies.
"That's not an excuse," he said to Tyler Dragon of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "That's a kick that I make 99 times out of 100. It's a freak deal. I let the team down."
At least Bullock gets a second chance. The Browns cut Austin Seibert this week after he missed an extra point, then a 41-yard field goal in Week 1. Seibert, who was 25-for-29 on field goals in a respectable first year with the team, was booted in favor of veteran Cody Parkey.
Does that name sound familiar? You might remember Parkey from the infamous double-doink heard 'round the world in January 2019. It cost the Chicago Bears a playoff win... and Parkey his job.
It's a curious move just one week into the season. Maybe Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski was taking out his frustration over the team's poor play on an easy target? Either way, Parkey's got a lot to prove with just a short, three-game stint with the Tennessee Titans since that Bears miscue.
Can either kicker come through in crunch time? The answer could tip the scales in a close game.
The Browns' debut under Stefanski was a head-scratcher. Yes, the Ravens remain one of the favorites to make the Super Bowl from the AFC. But only six points? With the type of offensive pieces the Browns have? You feel like they're capable of putting up 20 points or more, minimum, every game.
But the Browns were sloppy in 2019 and started off 2020 the same way. That's the type of play that will lose you football games even if, in this case, you're the better team. Add in Burrow's better-than-average debut and an upset could be brewing here in the battle of Ohio.
Prediction: Bengals 24, Browns 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.