There was no hype and new hope.
That’s what a fresh start called the 2020 season bestowed upon the Cleveland Browns and their faithful. And then came Week 1 and a disastrous loss to the Baltimore Ravens that conjured up all the same questions and criticisms from the previous year.
For the cross-state rival Cincinnati Bengals, hope lies within the right arm of top pick Joe Burrow. And though the Bengals bungled their chances in Week 1 against the Los Angeles Chargers, there was more life and optimism following the season-opening loss than likely existed after any game for Cincy last year — even one of their two victories.
And so a tale of two losses converges with Buckeye state foes clashing for the 94th time.
Here’s what to watch for when the Browns host the Bengals in the first Thursday Night Football matchup of the season at 8:20 p.m. ET airing exclusively on the NFL Network.
No. 1 pick vs. No. 1 pick
With a first win all but assured to emanate from Ohio on Thursday evening, a classic rivalry will be rekindled in a matchup highlighted by a pair of No. 1 overall picks (and Heisman Trophy winners) leading their opposing offenses. In the aftermath of the Browns’ resounding 38-6 loss, Baker Mayfield was met with the now-usual scrutiny. Following the Bengals’ 16-13 defeat to the Chargers, Joe Burrow found a rather sunny reception. In truth, the 2018 No. 1 selection and the 2020 top pick each had room for improvement with Mayfield and Burrow’s respective 65.0 and 66.1 passer ratings 30th and 31st among Week 1 starters, per NFL Research. Burrow was held without a touchdown throw, and Mayfield’s one TD was an afterthought in the most lopsided loss of the first week. As Mayfield’s on his fourth head coach, his regression has become a problem and his characteristic swagger has seemed to wane. Things must change in a hurry and the spotlight will be shining bright on Thursday. As for Burrow, it’s only his second game. Improvement is always key, but a rookie’s glow is still shining down on him, while Mayfield and the Browns — just a week in — are already in need of a turnaround.
Will OBJ — and everyone else — finally catch on offensively?
This feels all too familiar. The Browns lose. Odell Beckham doesn’t put up big numbers. Everybody freak out! Well, Beckham only had three catches for 22 yards on 10 targets. Ten. And he had a crucial, game-swinging drop. The Browns losing is a more prevalent problem than OBJ not getting his catches or Mayfield and Beckam still lacking chemistry. Nonetheless, something has to jump-start the Browns offense. So, why not Beckham? Or any of the Browns’ phenomenal options — Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, Austin Hooper or Kareem Hunt. The real quandary as to the Browns’ sputtering offense is bigger than Beckham and every lackluster game for him shouldn’t be this big. But when you’re in Strugglesville, every negative is blown out of proportion. The Browns offense must right the ship. And so too must the Bengals. A.J. Green returned for the first time in more than a season against the Chargers and the Bengals’ all-time great had a decent game with team-highs of five catches and 51 yards. But there must be more. And there must be more than Green. Cincinnati has Tyler Boyd, John Ross and Tee Higgins out wide and Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard in the backfield. Just like the quarterbacks, the rest of the Browns skill players are going to get more criticism for their travails, but the Bengals likewise have talent that’s under performing. There’s no better time to get going than under the lights with everyone watching and each team’s star players are in dire need of doing just that.
The great Ohio kicking battle of 2020
Need a little spice to ignite a rivalry between winless foes? Just add some kicker drama and let it simmer. Two days after missing all of his kicks for the Browns, Austin Seibert was claimed by the Bengals. Seibert was booted out of Cleveland after a disastrous day and it wasn’t hard to fathom as Cleveland’s seemingly been shopping for a replacement for a while. And they found that replacement in Cody Parkey, most well-known for doinking the 2018 Chicago Bears’ playoff fate off a goal post and then going on a national morning show to talk about it. While Parkey’s replacing Seibert, Seibert’s a back-up for Randy Bullock. Bullock’s game-tying attempt against the Chargers on Sunday flew off target with the culprit being the worst-time calf cramp of all time, per Bullock’s accord. Could Parkey win or lose a game with a kick and then appear on Good Morning Cleveland the next day? Will Seibert give away all the Browns’ secrets that he garnered from practicing in the kicker corner far away from all the rest of the squad? Or will Bullock gut out calf-tightness and come through to provided heroics? Who knows? But three days after Stephen Gostkowski took the world on a gut-wrenching roller coaster with his kicking woes and then wins, more kicker intrigue is possible in prime time.
Myles Garrett, Browns defense must respond
There’s likely to be some scuttlebutt in the lead-up regarding Myles Garrett returning to prime time for the first time since the horrendous incident in which he clubbed Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph with the latter’s own helmet. But of concern in the here and now is Garrett returning to form after last year’s disqualification ended a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber campaign. Against the Ravens, Garrett had just one tackle. He also had five QB pressures, so it was hardly the poorest of showings, but the other former No. 1 pick in this game is the face of the Browns’ defense and one of the top talents on the defensive side of the NFL. After allowing 38 points to a division rival, a Garrett-led response by the defense is commanded. Facing an offense that’s thus far lacked pop provides the perfect opportunity or a very real sign that hard times are indeed ahead.
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