CLEVELAND (AP) — They share some history, uniform colors and a strong disdain for the other. But these days, Ohio’s two NFL franchises are complete opposites — in the state and in the standings.
The Bengals and Browns are worlds apart.
Leading the AFC North by three games, Cincinnati enters Sunday’s game against a struggling Cleveland squad with an outside chance of locking up its fifth straight playoff appearance.
It’s a convoluted scenario, but the Bengals (9-2) are on the doorstep of another postseason.
The Browns, meanwhile, are diving into another deep hole. They’ve lost six straight, changing quarterbacks, coach Mike Pettine’s future is in serious doubt and they’re still recovering from a last-second, 33-27 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, who blocked a field goal and returned it 64 yards for a touchdown on the game’s final play — the kind of stunning defeat that only seems to happen to the Browns.
“I saw the end of that game,” Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “That was an interesting way to go down. But at the end of the day, we’re not going to let their troubles be our troubles. We’re going to go out and play our football game and stay on track for what we want to do.”
Following narrow losses to Arizona and Houston, the Bengals bounced back last week and thumped St. Louis 31-7. It was a cleaner performance after two penalty-filled games, and a TV monitor inside their locker room this week flashed a reminder to Cincinnati’s players not to take Cleveland lightly.
The message said: “Focused! Fast Start! Beat the Browns.”
That might not be hard to do as the Browns (2-9) only had a few days to prepare and will be starting a new quarterback as Austin Davis takes over for Josh McCown, lost for the season with a broken collarbone.
Coach Mike Pettine picked Davis — the Browns’ 24th starting quarterback since 1999 — over Johnny Manziel, who started Cleveland’s 31-10 loss to Cincinnati last month but lost his job after breaking a promise he wouldn’t go out partying during the team’s bye week.
Davis isn’t looking at this week’s game as an audition. He’s only guaranteed one start for now, and intends to make the most of it.
“I feel like I’m trying to beat the Cincinnati Bengals,” he said. “That’s kind of how I’ve got to approach it, and everything else just kind of happens. One week at a time.”
Here are other things to watch in the 85th installment of the “Battle of Ohio”:
PETTINE’S PLACE: With a 2-14 record in his past 16 games, Pettine’s on shaky ground with five games left. He knows it. His players know it, everyone in Cleveland knows it.
Browns Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas hopes owner Jimmy Haslam gives Pettine a third year.
“If you want to turn the Cleveland Browns into a consistent winner, you gotta be able to stick with a coach after a rough year,” he said. “The NFL is too competitive to think you’re going to turn around a franchise that has lost since they’ve come back in a year or two. It’s just not realistic.”
PRYOR COMMITMENT: The Browns signed former Oakland quarterback Terrelle Pryor this week, more than three months after cutting the wide receiver at the end of training camp.
Pryor is not likely to be active this week, but he’s certain he can help the Browns later this season.
“I believe I can help anywhere on the field, especially once I just keep on getting the foundation down,” he said. “I feel like I’m a lot better player.”
STINGY D: The Bengals’ defense ranks only 15th in yards allowed, but they’ve given up the fewest points in the league at 193.
Cincinnati has held four of the past five opponents to 10 points or fewer. Tackle Geno Atkins leads NFL interior linemen with 8 sacks, Dunlap has 8½. Safety Reggie Nelson leads the league with six interceptions. It’s been a winning combination.
“Having Geno Atkins in the middle makes it easier for you as an edge rusher,” Dunlap said. “Especially when you’ve got a safety behind you leading the league in picks — they don’t want to throw it up there.”
NO LEAPING: Running back Jeremy Hill tried to jump into the Dawg Pound after scoring a touchdown during Cincinnati’s 30-0 win in Manziel’s debut last season, but fans shoved him out. He won’t try to go back. Hill’s having a subpar second season — 490 yards — and has toned down his TD celebrations.
“I’ve been trying to cut back on all that extra stuff, man,” said Hill, who ran for a season-high 86 yards last week. “That stuff’s all fun and dandy, but I’m synced in on what we need to accomplish.”
NO FLAGS: One thread to the Bengals’ back-to-back losses was penalties. They had nine for 70 yards against Houston, a season-high 10 for 108 yards against Arizona. They were much better in the win over the Rams, getting penalized only three times for 35 yards.
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