Cleveland Browns (4-2) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-4-1)
I expected the Bengals to be a competitive team this season. Though they went just 2-14 last season, they lost 8 of those games by one score or less and finished 24th in first down rate differential at -3.47%, primarily due to a capable defense that ranked 18th in first down rate allowed. This season, they looked likely to be improved on offense, with the addition of quarterback Joe Burrow and the return of left tackle Jonah Williams and wide receiver AJ Green from injuries that cost them all of 2019.
Based on box scores, the Bengals seem like a competitive team, losing just once by more than one score, but they’ve been worse than that suggests, ranking 27th in first down rate differential at -4.23% and 29th in first down rate differential at -4.78% when you factor in the Bengals’ relatively easy schedule. The Bengals’ close games with the Colts and the Browns came in games in which the Bengals lost the first down rate battle by 10.78% and 10.75% respectively. They lost to the Colts despite winning the turnover battle and they needed to go 5 for 5 on 4th down and get a last second garbage time touchdown to cut it to a single score against the Browns, while their one win came by 8 points against a terrible Jaguars team.
The Bengals’ offense has been marginally better, but AJ Green has not returned to form and this week they’ll be without lead running back Joe Mixon, while their defense has played worse this season than last season, in large part due to injuries. The Bengals’ injury situation on defense has changed since their last matchup with the Browns, but it hasn’t necessarily gotten better. The Bengals will have defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels this time around, but they won’t have fellow defensive tackle DJ Reader, defensive end Sam Hubbard, or top cornerback William Jackson. On top of that, Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who led this defense last season, are both over 30 and have taken a significant step back in 2020.
However, the Browns haven’t been that much better statistically than the Bengals this season and they have their own injury concerns on offense, missing right guard Wyatt Teller, running back Nick Chubb, and tight end Austin Hooper, while Baker Mayfield is dealing with a rib issue that seemed to limit him significantly against the Steelers last week. That 38-7 loss in Pittsburgh last week and their 38-6 loss in Baltimore week 1 are the reason why the Browns rank 24th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -2.07%, despite winning and playing pretty well in their other four games.
It’s possible the Browns would have been much more competitive if Mayfield was healthy, but it’s also possible Mayfield is still not healthy, in which case the Bengals would have a decent chance to pull the home upset this week. There’s too much uncertainty with Mayfield for either side to be worth betting and my calculated line, factoring in Mayfield being less than 100%, is Cleveland -3 anyway, so we’re not getting any line value in either direction. I’m taking the Bengals for pick ‘em purposes, but this is essentially a coin flip and a push is very likely.
Update: The Bengals seem to have internal issues going on with their defense and the defensive coordinator. I still don’t have a strong lean on this game, but that’s enough for me to flip this to Cleveland.
Cleveland Browns 30 Cincinnati Bengals 27
Pick against the spread: Cleveland -3