Battle of Ohio: 5 storylines to watch in Sunday’s Bengals-Browns game

The 2019 Cincinnati Bengals will go down in the books as one of the worst teams in franchise history, but they can avoid a new all-time low with a win this week.

Cincinnati went 2-14 in 2002 and that is the best record these Bengals (1-14) can hope for as they host the Cleveland Browns (6-9) in the finale today at Paul Brown Stadium.

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Cleveland was eliminated from the playoff picture last week with a loss to Baltimore but won the first “Battle of Ohio” matchup 27-19 on Dec. 8.

Here are five storylines to watch for in the rematch:

1. Dalton’s potential last start

When Mike Brown spoke to media at a pre-training camp luncheon, he said this was going to be an important year for Andy Dalton, whose contract expires after the 2020 season. Dalton ended up getting benched midway through the year while the Bengals gave rookie Ryan Finley a look, but after three games the experiment failed, and Dalton came back to lead the team to its lone win, a 22-6 victory over the Jets in Week 13.

Three more losses, including a four-interception day against the Patriots, clinched the top overall pick in next year’s draft, and now the Bengals have a chance to rebuild around a quarterback (potentially Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow) who will cost much less than Dalton.

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That means Sunday could be Dalton’s last start in Cincinnati. Dalton had expressed interest in being traded when he was benched, and there’s a possibility that could happen in the offseason with the Bengals seeing their future through the draft. Otherwise, the Bengals could keep him around to mentor the QB of the future.

2. Lineup rotations

The Bengals want to win this one to end a miserable season on a high note, but they do want to use the game as an opportunity to see a few guys who haven’t played a lot of snaps, and the Browns might be taking that approach to an even greater extent.

Taylor mentioned Fred Johnson would be getting more playing time Sunday at left tackle as the Bengals try to better gauge what he could provide in the future. Johnson, a rookie undrafted free agent who the Bengals claimed off waivers from the Steelers in Week 7, has played five games but had limited snaps until last week when he was in for almost 70 percent of the offensive snaps.

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Asked if the Bengals might want to see Johnson at right tackle with the expectation Jonah Williams will be playing left tackle next year, Taylor said the team will just be looking at him on the left side right now. Bobby Hart remains under contract for two more years.

Browns coach Freddie Kitchens said during a conference call Thursday that he was approaching this game like any other one but some injuries will dictate his lineup. Odell Beckham Jr. is questionable with a groin issue and illness, tight ends Pharaoh Brown and Ricky Seals-Jones also were ill this week and four others are questionable as well: tackle Kendall Lamm (knee), defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (back), center JC Tretter (knee) and defensive end Oliver Vernon (knee).

3. Milestone alert

Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd are on the brink of 1,000 yards for the second straight year. Mixon, who had 320 yards through the first eight games, needs just 25 yards rushing to reach his milestone, and Boyd needs just 13 yards to reach 1,000 yards receiving.

Mixon had a career day against the Browns in the first meeting Dec. 8 when he rushed for 146 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries. He had another 136 yards the next game but was limited last week when he was battling illness and rushed for just 50 yards.

Boyd is coming off a big game at Miami when he caught nine passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns to help the Bengals rally from a 23-point deficit to force overtime before falling on a last-second field goal in the extra period.

4. Redzone issues solved?

The last time these teams met the Bengals had plenty of chances to score and just couldn’t finish in the red zone. They were 1-for-5 in red-zone opportunities.

Cincinnati went into last week’s game not having scored a second-half touchdown since Week 7 and somehow managed to score three touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone at Miami, including 16 in the final 29 seconds with an onside recovery in between scores.

The Bengals went back to their offensive struggles in overtime, but will be hoping to see the same kind of production Sunday that they experienced in that fourth quarter. Cleveland ranks 22nd in red-zone defense, allowing touchdowns on 59.6 percent of red-zone appearances.

5. Stopping Cleveland

Baker Mayfield threw for just 192 yards and had two interceptions the last meeting, but Nick Chubb continued to lead the team while rushing for 106 yards. He still leads the league with 1,453 yards this season, and Cincinnati’s weakness has been against the best ball carriers. The run defense improved after the Bengals were done facing the most mobile quarterbacks, but stopping Chubb should be a focus Sunday.

Mayfield has struggled this year overall after a promising rookie season. He has 18 interceptions and 19 touchdowns, has failed to cross 200 yards passing in three of the last four games and hasn’t gone without an interception since Week 11. Jarvis Landry had a big game against the Bengals last time and will continue to be his big target, especially with Beckham questionable and showing signs of displeasure with the organization as he’s been under-utilized.

“So much of it has to do with the people around you,” Kitchens said when asked what the difference in Baker is this year from last season. “Baker needs to play better. He knows that. He has been playing better as of late, but everyone has to do better around the quarterback and the quarterback has to do better. It’s an all- encompassing thing. When things go wrong, the quarterback is going to get all the blame. When things go right, the quarterback is going to get all the credit. That’s been since Day 1 of football, back in Pop Warner.”


Browns at Bengals, 1 p.m., WHIO-TV Ch. 7, Ch. 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 1o4.7

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