Regardless of what happens this afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium, the Cincinnati Bengals will walk off the field and into their bye week in first place.
But while their standing is guaranteed, their psyche is in limbo.
A victory in the 81st Battle of Ohio would give Cincinnati (6-4) a comfortable 2 1/2 –game cushion on Cleveland (4-5) and send the Bengals into their break feeling good about having won five of the previous seven games.
But a loss would be the team’s third in a row, shrinking its lead in the AFC North to a half-game. And instead of several days full of rest and relaxation, the time off would be filled with concern and consternation.
“It’s obviously a big game for us,” Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said. “We’ve got to do whatever we can to get the win.”
A victory would have added value for the Browns, who could complete the season sweep against their in-state rivals and earn the tiebreaker edge after already beating the Bengals 17-6 in Week 4.
That game marked the worst performance of the year for the Cincinnati offense, which posted a season-low 266 yards and failed to score a touchdown for the second time in the last three years.
“They caught us, and it was a good day for them,” Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “Round 2 coming up. I think guys are excited to have an opportunity to kind of right the ship and go out and play the way we want to play.”
Actually they will be trying to re-right the ship.
Following the loss in Cleveland, the Bengals posted four wins in a row with the offense averaging 29.0 points and 411.8 yards. But production and ball-security issues have cropped up again with seven turnovers in the last two games, both of which ended in overtime losses.
“We’ve dug a little bit of a hole, and we’ve got to climb out and play better this week against the Browns,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “Hopefully we’ve built to where every game means another opportunity down the line. That’s what’s important. That’s what everybody strives for.”
Cleveland is back in the race mainly because of Cincinnati’s stumbles. The Browns had lost three in a row before knocking off Baltimore two weeks ago heading into their bye.
But the play of journeyman quarterback Jason Campbell, an eight-year veteran who is with his fourth team, the last two games has been enough to spur hope. In his first start for the Browns, Campbell threw for 293 yards and two touchdowns in a 23-17 loss to undefeated Kansas City. The following week he threw for 262 yards and three TDs in a 24-18 triumph of Baltimore.
Campbell has yet to throw an interception and is the first Browns quarterback in the Super Bowl era to post a 100-plus passer rating in his first two starts.
If he can make another strong showing today in his first Battle of Ohio game, he could elevate himself to cult hero status in Cleveland and alter the direction of two franchises heading down the stretch.
“I understand it’s a huge game, like any state where you have two teams in the same state play each other,” Campbell said. “It’s more important because it’s a division game and where we’re at in our season and where they’re at in their season. That’s what makes the stakes really high.”
Cleveland Browns (4-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (6-4), 1 p.m., Ch. 7, 12, 700-AM, 1530-AM, 102.7-FM, 104.7-FM