J.D. Bagley, @jdbagley5
As we are set to begin the last quarter of the NFL season, it’s safe to say the Cleveland Browns have been a disappointment to many. With sky-high expectations for the 2019 season, the Browns enter Week 14 at 5-7 with their playoff hopes hanging by a thread. If there was ever a ‘get right’ game, it would be hosting the worst team in football, the Cincinnati Bengals. Although the Bengals have their eyes locked on LSU QB Joe Burrow, the Browns can’t afford to take this game lightly after Andy Dalton carried Cincinnati to its first win of the season in his return to the lineup last week.
Baker Mayfield and the Browns won both meetings with Cincinnati last year, sweeping the Bengals for the first time since 2002, which also happens to be the year of Cleveland’s most recent playoff appearance. In those 2 games, Mayfield threw for 7 TDs and 0 INT with a QB Rating of 132.9. After injuring his hand during last week’s loss in Pittsburgh, Baker will be ready to go this week hoping to build on those impressive numbers versus the in-state rival. He insisted to reporters during his press conference earlier this week that he’d be playing, stating, “Mama didn’t raise a wuss,”. With the Browns struggles in the red zone this year, Mayfield will be happy to see David Njoku back on the field this week as he returns for the first time since Week 2. Njoku’s presence in the red zone has been missed throughout the season as the Browns find the end zone just 53.66% of the time they get inside the 20, down 13% from last year.
Cleveland could be without starting offensive linemen J.C. Tretter and Chris Hubbard this week, both are listed as questionable with knee injuries. Freddie Kitchens said, “it’ll be close” whether or not the two can go Sunday. This also comes with some good news regarding the offensive line as Greg Robinson has cleared concussion protocol and is expected to be back in the lineup versus Cincinnati. Last week, Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt terrorized the Browns starting tackles so it will be nice to at least get some stability back (offensive line is still the #1 concern on this team). For some reason, Freddie Kitchens continuously decides to stray away from using the best 1-2 punch at running back in the NFL. That has to change this week as the Bengals rank dead last in opponent rushing yards per game, giving up an average of 157.6. Cincinnati also struggles to defend running backs in the passing game. Using Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in a variety of ways should be a staple to Kitchens’ offensive game plan this week.
At this point with nothing to lose, the Bengals made the decision to start Andy Dalton over rookie Ryan Finley for the remainder of the season. Throughout the final 4 games of the season, Dalton will be looking to improve his narrative around the NFL as he will likely be residing elsewhere in 2020 with the Bengals set to draft a new QB. He will receive some much-needed speed on the offensive side of the ball with John Ross III set to return after missing the previous 8 games with a shoulder injury. For the Browns, Damarious Randall will be back in his usual starting role after Freddie Kitchens left him at home last week for missing practice. I like Kitchens trying to hold his players accountable, but all the youth on the back end in Pittsburgh last week proved to be costly. Eric Murray is listed as doubtful on the injury report, meaning the other safety position will likely see a rotation between Sheldrick Redwine, Juston Burris and J.T. Hassell. Amidst all the shuffling that has gone on along the defensive line this season, Sheldon Richardson is quietly having himself a really solid season leading the Browns front 4 in tackles by a sizeable margin. More injury news, Olivier Vernon is listed as questionable with a knee injury that has bothered him for most of the season. Vernon played just 12 snaps in his return to the lineup last week in Pittsburgh before tweaking his knee which sidelined him for the remainder of the game.
When it comes down to it, the Browns playoff hopes are quite slim but the door isn’t completely closed just yet. Cleveland needs to win out, while Pittsburgh loses 2 of its final 4, and Tennessee loses 3 of its final 4. Also in this scenario, Oakland and Indianapolis would each have to lose at least one of its remaining games. It’s not likely by any means, but Browns fans are no stranger to hoping for miracles.