J.D. Bagley, @jdbagley5
For the second year in a row, the Browns were eliminated from playoff contention in Week 16, making the season finale an essentially meaningless game once again. The difference being, last year at this time Cleveland had tons of optimism heading into Week 17 that carried into 2019, as they won 5 of their last 7 games of the season. This year though feels like the complete opposite. The records are similar, but the expectations have greatly dampened the hope of this organization.
Last year in the final game against Baltimore the Browns had nothing to lose, playing solid football down the stretch and having a chance to knock the division-rival Ravens out of the postseason. Now, the Browns are playing with the sole purpose of not embarrassing themselves. This game will show who they really are. Although the talent gap between the two teams is massive, everything else points to this game being much closer than it looks on paper.
Cincinnati has absolutely nothing to lose having already clinched the #1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, where they will almost surely select QB Joe Burrow out of LSU. Don’t expect the Bengals to roll over and hand this one to Cleveland. Before locking up the #1 pick, last week in Miami the Bengals came back from 23 points down to force overtime, where they eventually fell 38-35. Many players will be playing for their jobs on Sunday as the Cincinnati front office will likely bring in a slew of new faces this offseason in hopes to improve the roster. There’s a reason this is only a field goal game according to nearly every Sportsbook in Vegas.
For the Browns, there are many accolades that can be broken and/or achieved on Sunday. Although he played in 2 fewer games last year, Baker Mayfield needs 178 passing yards to break his 2018 mark of 3,725. In the first meeting with Cincinnati, Mayfield had a rough game going just 11/24 for 192 yards and 2 INTs. He’ll look to head into the offseason on a good note while setting a new career-high in passing yardage.
Odell Beckham Jr. did not practice on Friday and is listed as questionable on the Browns final injury report. If Beckham can go Sunday, he needs just 46 yards receiving to hit 1,000 on the season. Mayfield, when asked if he was aware of the potential milestone, said, “Absolutely, and winning. I think him getting a lot of yards equates to us winning.” Versus the Bengals, in Week 14 Beckham had just 2 catches for 39 yards.
It’s worth noting that while the Browns have tons of talent on paper, news has broken in recent weeks that both Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry have been playing injured all season. Beckham with a sports hernia and Landry dealing with a fractured lower back that has turned into a hip injury. Both receivers will meet with specialists after the season to determine whether or not surgery is necessary.
Amidst an All-Pro season, Nick Chubb has been one of the few bright spots for the Browns this year and has my vote for team MVP. Chubb has the chance to become the first Browns player to lead the NFL in rushing since Leroy Kelly back in 1968. He currently has 1,453 rushing yards, good for 4th on Cleveland’s all-time rushing list trailing only the great Jim Brown.
The Browns run defense has to be much better than it has been the previous 3 weeks. Joe Mixon has the ability to gash a defense when given the opportunity, as he did in the first meeting versus Cleveland totaling 186 yards from scrimmage. In what will very likely be Andy Dalton’s final game in a Bengals uniform, I expect him to lay it all on the line for the fan base and city he called home for 9 years. The Browns can’t afford to sleepwalk into Cincinnati.
This game on Sunday will set the tone for the Browns heading into the offseason. A win can build confidence and slight optimism, while a loss would put a dagger into this disappointment of a season. Cleveland hasn’t won a season finale since 2009, can they end the season on a positive note and buck that trend?